Saturday, January 15, 2011

Multi-Tasking and the Motherhood Penalty

by Tracey Collins
For decades women have learned to divide their focus between the twin demands of career and caretaker.  The National Center for Policy Analysis estimates that 70% of today’s home-based businesses are run by women and a recent US Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) report put out the by US Department of Commerce attributes “work-life” balance as a key factor for why women are starting businesses twice as often as men.  That same ESA report noted that female businesses grow at a slower rate than male-run businesses.  Female owners tend to work fewer hours than male business owners.  They obtain less outside financing and may expect less business growth than men.  Maybe that is because one-third of all self-employed women have children under the age of 18.  We spend less time working at our businesses because we have less time to work.

If you are a woman running a business alongside other commitments – family or parental -- chances are you engage in a daily struggle for balance.  Some call this multi-tasking, and after years of struggling to balance the tensional pull between my growing family and growing business, I’ve come to loathe this term.

A study in 2002 by John Arden found that, “multitasking decreases your memory ability.” He also claims that for every new task that you take on “you dilute your investment in each task.”  Dr. David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, claims that multitasking can actually hinder a person’s ability to complete tasks at the optimum level because it adversely affects the brain’s short-term memory and concentration. One 2005 UK study actually found that when it comes to multi-tasking, males were superior in quiet conditions; females were superior during distracting conditions. However that same study also noted that male or female, our IQ drops 10 points when multi-tasking.

Here at the SmartGirls Way we have oft debated the upside and downside of multitasking.  When I am effectively multi-tasking I feel empowered, efficient and capable – delivering a feature article in advance of a deadline, plowing through the laundry and wrapping up a new coaching contract in time to steal some precious moments on the playground with my kids.  But on a bad day multi-tasking just seems to provide me multiple things to feel guilty about.   Even if I have had a good session with a client --it wouldn’t be a surprise to discover I’ve forgotten the parent-teacher conference and misplaced my cell phone in the refrigerator.   These are the days that I contemplate closing up shop because the fear of failure – as both a mother and a consultant – clouds my head with doubt and dread.

And I’m willing to bet I’m not alone.  A 2007 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor survey found that an increased fear of failure among women in particular is why fewer people are now considering setting up a business. Is the underlying problem really a fear of failure or an impossible standard of achievement by which I measure myself?  

Shelley J. Correll at the Clayman Institute at Stanford, calls this the Motherhood Penalty. When it comes to entrepreneurial ventures, men view lower levels of achievement as success, whereas women see it as confirmation that they were not up to the job. Is it the disadvantageous stereotyping of working women that is really the culprit here?   I know what I tell my own clients when they’re feeling overwhelmed and guilty.  
  • First, identify the lesson in each situation. When I’ve consistently dropped the ball on my familial responsibilities I see it as a big sign from the universe that I need to step back and evaluate.  I love the definition of insanity:  doing something the same way every time and expecting a different outcome.  When I start to see a pattern, then I know I’ve got to make a change.  That doesn’t mean I need to stop running my business, but it may mean I need to stop working for a specific client or ask for some help from my husband to get me through a busy time.
  • Second, focus on your strengths.  I am a big fan of life coach Markus Buckingham’s 80/20 rule.  Most of us spend our time focusing on what we perceive as weaknesses when what we really need to do is spend 80 percent of our time focusing on what we do best.  That’s one of the reasons I left my corporate job to start my own business in the first place.  If I’m feeling too stretched and its having a knock-on effect on my family, chances are I’ve fallen prey to something that is keeping me from focusing on what I do well.
  • Third, weave together a support solution.  The evidence on business ownership suggests that people who have family and friends who have started businesses are more likely to do so themselves. I truly believe that there isn’t any problem that I’m facing that some other woman has not also experienced.  In all of the research I did for this essay, one common theme rose above all others: the support system I weave around myself is critical to my success.    This support system allows me to share the burden of child-rearing and entrepreneurialism with my spouse, my childcare provider and my colleagues.  It also allows me to focus my intuition and passion on the business activities that are at once enticing not only for their profitability, but also for their interest and beneficial impact on others.  Finally, this support system allows me to meet and learn from some of the most interesting and dynamic women and men in my field. 

So I'm going to stick with it - at least for today. Maybe my experiences will benefit another woman in my shoes and I’m willing to bet I can learn a lot from some of you.  If you have any suggestions for me I’m all ears.

Tracey Collins is guest-writer for The SmartGirls Way.  She is President and Founder of Mirror Group Consulting; a consultancy focused on content, executive coaching and change management.  

1 comment:

  1. I was able to relate to this posting on a number of levels. Between trying to balance motherhood & family life with graduate studies and ventures in starting up a childcare business of my own from home it is easy to feel pulled in multiple directions; thereby, making room for self-doubt to creep in. It helps to know, however, that I am not alone and that many women are juggling the same challenges in their lives as well. Thanks for writing!