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The Worst Question You Can Ask a Woman at Work

Beth Monaghan, principal and cofounder of InkHouseBeth Monaghan, principal and cofounder of InkHouse
Beth Monaghan, principal and cofounder of InkHouseCourtesy of InkHouse

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? is written by Beth Monaghan, principal and cofounder of InkHouse.

This question that so many women get asked reflects one of the biggest hurdles in increasing female leadership: How do you do it all? It’s supposed to be seen as a compliment by well–meaning men and women, but the truth is it’s a sexist question. In fact, U.S. workplaces have an entire vocabulary for the disadvantages women face — opting out, leaning in, sticky floors, glass ceilings, glass cliffs, the motherhood penalty, etc. — but the real thing holding women back is our collective belief in the mutual exclusivity of workplace leadership and motherhood. Young women need to be able to see a clear path that leads to success in the workplace and at home. The questioning of our ability to do both is the most significant challenge to doing just that.

It turns out that women are perhaps more ambitious than men at the start of our careers. A Bain study shows that 43% of women aspire to top management when they are in the first two years of their career compared to 34% of men. However, over time, women’s aspiration levels drop more than 60% while men’s stay the same. Why? They don’t see examples of women like them at the top and they lose confidence in their own ability to break through those very steep looking hurdles. This is true of any minority group.

See also: The One Thing Every Company Gets Wrong About Promoting Women

Doubt is sprinkled across every workplace hallway that women dare to walk. I am the founder and CEO of an 80-person bi-coastal public relations firm and even so, when I was pregnant with my second daughter, once a week someone would ask me if I planned to come back to work. First, I would get indignant, but quickly remembered that outrage was not the path to workplace success, so I came up with a joke: InkHouse was my first child. Of course I’m coming back.

Ever wonder how many men have to answer this question? I can’t imagine many. At its heart are some fairly terrible and harmful stereotypes our culture assigns to women in leadership. If you’re dedicated to your job you’re usually looked at as one of the following: perpetually single because you’re married to your job or a Queen Bee who barks orders and tramples the people in her path. But if you’re dedicated to your family you’re seen as the office mom who passes out tissues and bakes cookies on Fridays. These minimize the complexity required to balance between the empathy of home life and the strategy of work life, but women are doing just that. And so are men — but people don’t ask guys how they manage it all, especially if they are married.

Why are we still thinking these things in an era that is 43 years beyond the Equal Rights Amendment? Well, the ERA has yet to be ratified even though it’s been introduced in every Congress since 1982. And it seems that our culture thinks it’s bad for women to work. According to the Pew Research Center, 34% of working moms and 44% of stay-at-home moms think the growth in women working outside of the home is “bad for society.” But let’s look at different data from the International Monetary Fund, that found if we employed all of the available women in our workforce, we would increase the U.S. GDP by 5%. That’s no trivial amount when we’re looking at a GDP of more than $17 trillion. Also, daughters of women who work grow up to earn more money, 4% more according to a Harvard study. Sons of those same mothers grow up to spend more time caring for their children and more time helping with chores, which matters because still, 83% of women do housework compared to 65% of men.

What’s more, the future of the workplace is dependent on many of the skills that women possess, things like emotional intelligence, diplomacy, and collaboration. Harvard’s David J. Deming issued a report on the growing importance of social skills in the job market. He wrote, “Since 1980, jobs with high social skill requirements have experienced greater relative growth throughout the wage distribution. Moreover, employment and wage growth has been strongest in jobs that require high levels of both cognitive skill and social skill.” The good news is that gender roles are shifting. The millennial generation is ushering change into the workplace that is bending toward balance and equality. Competence and confidence look very different on women. When we stop worrying about how women do it all, women can start focusing on what they’re capable of achieving.