Today's women could take their mothers to work

Daughters can look to mom for help navigating workplace

November 11, 2010|Susan Reimer

My mother was a legal secretary back in the day, and when she left for work, her purse matched her shoes and she wore a hat and gloves.

She was a legal secretary in the mold of Della Street, for those of you who remember the Perry Mason show, but she gave up all of that when she married and started having children.

Years later, when I was a young reporter for the Associated Press, my boss at the time demanded that I carry a gun when I worked the night shift. I refused. And when he declared that he would send me to an assignment where I could be murdered but not to one where I could be raped, I was too stunned to ask whether I had a choice.

My mother had little advice to offer a daughter in her first job — especially a job like the one I had taken on. And over the years, she reacted to my work stories with amazement and confusion.

It was the early 1970s, women were beginning to enter the professional work force in great numbers, and we had to rely on each other to navigate this lifestyle choice because our mothers didn't know where to begin. Especially after our own children entered the equation.

Even if they had worked outside the home — or were still working outside the home — our mothers didn't understand the hostility of the workplace toward women who were suddenly a threat to take jobs that once were the province of men.

The world moves quickly, but I would venture to guess that my generation of working mothers has much more to offer our working daughters than just a cup of tea and a sympathetic ear. We might not have seen it all, but we have seen, or heard, most of it, and I think we can help.

We have dealt with bosses of all stripes and co-workers of both sexes. We know about ethics issues and proprietary matters and what's not cool to say or do in the workplace.

We know what to wear to work, and what not to wear. We have endured performance evaluations and tried — and perhaps failed — to negotiate for a raise. We know what to do if someone is hitting on us in the office and if someone wants to fire us because we won't cooperate.

If we haven't dealt with this stuff ourselves, we know somebody who has. Or we know where to go for advice.

Just as important, we know the history of women in the workplace — at least the last 30 or 40 years of that history. We know what it was like before women became a force to be reckoned with in the economy, and we know better than to take anything for granted.

Unfortunately, our daughters are not always much interested in our store of knowledge and experience. Like we did, they rely on their inexperienced friends, linking arms and making it up as they go along. They think we don't understand. They have no idea how much we understand.

For generations, men have been able to hand off manhood to their sons. Whether their fathers were farmers, coal miners, doctors or politicians, sons could follow in those footsteps, taking up the shovel or taking over the practice or taking up the family business. They benefited from all their fathers had learned, on their own and from their own fathers.

Women of my generation invented working motherhood as a continuing institution — not a wartime stopgap and not a farm belt sharing of the yoke. It didn't go smoothly, and the work isn't completed — witness the lack of quality child care and the continuing wage gap. But we have been there since the beginning.

If our daughters will take the time to listen, we have much to share.

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