WSJ’s “Office Mom” Piece Has Some Problems

The New York Times is getting a run for its money in the dubiously-credible lifestyle articles department. Today’s contender: the Wall Street Journal’s “Who’s Your Office Mom?” which continues on another page with the statement-making headline, “Every Office Needs A Mom.”

Really, WSJ, really?

To quote:

The office mom is shorthand for a figure in many offices: the colleague who remembers everyone’s birthdays and brings in cupcakes. She has Advil and tissues in her desk drawer. She knows your significant other is all wrong for you—and will say so.

She is often an office manager but can be a senior executive, too. Just as people talk about their “office spouse,” a colleague they spend time with and confide in, the office mom is asserting herself as the matriarch of the office family. …

The office mom is almost always a woman and often slightly older than other colleagues. She might actually be a mother, but not necessarily. A relationship with her is complex like all family relationships tend to be: A younger employee might want to please her professionally, even as she grits her teeth listening to her personal advice.

The writer, Katherine Rosman, made the briefest of mentions of the concern some women feel for taking on this “stereotypical role.” But that concern is quickly dismissed by quotes from other office moms about the good they feel they do in the workplace. I’m not suggesting these women aren’t assets to their workplace; one makes a good point that “nurturing valuable employees is critical” — that’s likely true even more so with the new generation of millenials, raised by “helicopter parents,” who are used to having their needs acknowledged, if not met, at all times.   

However, it irritates me that the WSJ piece attributes “cakes and cupcakes for the entire staff’s birthdays” or doling out Band-Aids and dating advice as the province of moms — as opposed to moms and dads or even just people. GAY MEN, HELLO! Mothers are not the only emotional providers within a family and that’s doubly true when the ‘family’ is your work one. “Can’t people who don’t have kids be kind and compassionate, too? It should just be associated with being a caring human being without the mom qualifier,” Julie wrote when I asked her about this article.

Additionally, the way that employees encourage, nurture, support and socialize isn’t necessarily a gendered thing: getting a drink or a bite to eat after work with your boss or coworkers is pretty standard across the board. It’s true that in the office women are typically the ones to plan company baby showers, but women are also involved in activities like March Madness brackets or volunteer activities. Sometimes the workplace can be a gender-neutral environment in the way outside society is not. 

I realize this was kind of a tongue-in-cheek lifestyle piece. But they could have — and I think should have — dug deeper into this so-called “phenomenon” — namely, it doesn’t analyze the implications of those gender stereotypes Rosman briefly mentioned. I would have liked an explanation for how a man who is sensitive, caring and nurturing in the workplace is seen as a great guy, someone who would be a good mentor. But a woman with those same qualities? She could be either seen as a softie who’s not to be taken seriously or eyeroll-worthy because she’s embodying such a stereotypical role. All the “office moms” quoted in the piece were thumbs-up positive about their roles — and all their “office daughters,” too.

But everyone who knows moms and daughters knows a relationship is never that uncomplicated … even when we’re just talking about the office.

[Wall Street Journal]

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