Photograph by Paul Bradbury — Getty Images

A look at the surprising, off-the-radar ways working moms help each other balance families and high-powered careers

By Kimberly Seals Allers
July 30, 2015

 

When Meghan Mills, director of global corporate sales at one of the top hotel companies, returned to work after her maternity leave, she had many concerns. Among the most pressing: An upcoming six-day, cross country business trip and the question of how to keep pumping milk for her daughter, Harper, while on the road. She had heard through another executive mom that Marisa Levy, VP of program development at TLC, was the go-to person for everything related to pumping and travel.

“With one or two emails, we set up a call and she filled me in on everything I needed to know—from which coolers are best to transport milk to using Ziploc bags to store my pump if I don’t have time to wash it, to how to use room service to freeze my freezer packs,” Mills says. “We were complete strangers connected by one mutual connection and she told me everything, details I had not thought of,” Mills recalls.

For her part, Levy says she often gets calls or emails or phone calls from” virtual strangers” with work and motherhood-related questions. “I happily responded to each and every request with one condition: They then had to pay it forward to other new mothers,” she says.

How does she do it? For many female execs, one secret to success is informally tapping the knowledge of the women around them. From nannies and day care to easy recipes and tips for managing family needs from the road, women like Mills and Levy quietly share suggestions and tricks with others trying to balance motherhood with the corporate climb.

“Executive moms are an underserved community, a giant niche,” says Marisa Thalberg, chief brand engagement officer at Taco Bell, who founded New York City’s Executive Moms, a networking group designed to try to create a more formalized way for women to connect.

The fact that executive women go underground and offline to create their own resources points to the lack of support systems in many companies. High-ranking women say they contend with inflexible schedules and long hours—indeed, the percentage of women working at least 50 hours a week is now higher in the United States than in any other country. And even at corporations where some flexible options exist, some exec moms say they fear that, if they use them, they risk being viewed as less ambitious or as “leaning back.”

The fact that companies aren’t doing a better job of helping women wrangle these issues is a serious problem, says Julia Beck, founder of the It’s Working Project, an initiative of the Forty Weeks company, which helps firms develop HR strategies to better recruit and retain new parents. Moms who feel unsupported often end up quitting. Not only is replacing these executives costly, but when you “factor in her role as a leader, a mentor and a part of a thriving ecosystem” the departures hurt company morale and cohesion, says Beck.

“I tend to only trade favors with other corporate moms in my personal network because I feel like there’s an unspoken understanding and no judgement,” says one senior level executive at a financial services firm, who asked that Fortune not use her name. Yet even within a relatively small circle, she says she’s gotten valuable advices. “The most important thing I learned from the secret society is to not offer my direct report too much information. When I start to explain why I’m leaving early or not available that allows others to offer their judgment. Now, I simply say, I have a conflict or I’m not available. End of story,” she says.

Erika Irish Brown, global head of diversity and inclusion at Bloomberg, says she shares information via an employee-driven Bloomberg network called Working Families, which features a virtual chat and hosts lunches, panels and opportunities for mentoring. Her tips? “I forgo dinners that are not client-focused, I rarely travel the night before a meeting unless necessary, I work out at home instead of at the gym and I cook 2-3 meals every Sunday for the week,” says Brown.

In many cases, women also come up with informal ways to help each other out in the office. Levy, the TLC executive who advised Meghan Mills, recalls working at a company with glass-paned offices. Some of the new mothers at the firm fashioned a shower rod and curtain into a privacy screen that could be easily used when pumping at work for women who wanted to multitask in their office instead of using the designated pumping room. The curtain rod got passed around from one mother to another as needed. “In no time, when people saw the curtain they knew not to enter and when someone new needed it we would just pass it on,” says Levy.

Ultimately, Thalberg says, there’s a strong “we’re all in this together” shared experience spirit among executive moms who are quick to offer their tips and tricks to anyone else in their predicament.

“Women know what support looks like and feels like—this is why they are so eager to share with one another,” says Beck. “They don’t want to lose ‘one of their own,'” Beck says.

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