Women #getthingsdone. Immigrants #getthingsdone. But just because they can – should they?
On this International Women’s Day, I want to honour my mother. (Because I don’t do it enough on Mother’s Day or any other day, to be honest.)
My mom is not much bigger than me, but she has big impact.
I was born in Hong Kong, where maternity leave is almost non-existent by Canadian standards. My mom went back to her executive HR job after about 6 weeks. They didn’t have daycare, my parents had to find a babysitter for me while they both worked.
After they immigrated to Canada, my mom stayed at home to raise me until I was about 7, then she went back to work full-time as a bookkeeper/accountant, after earning a certificate through night school. I remember getting up at the crack of dawn (so it felt) and eating breakfast in the car while my mom drove me to the Morning Program at school, so she could make it on time to work. Then I stayed for the After School Program to wait for my mom to pick me up after work.
Later on, my mom got a part-time job closer to home, working five days a week but at slightly reduced hours, so she could get home at a reasonable time. She worked at a large medical company as an Accounts Payable Clerk, eventually becoming a Senior A/P Clerk through her hard work and competence. Her job position wasn’t very high, especially considering her executive work experience in Hong Kong. But she was highly respected and liked by all her colleagues. I know this first-hand because I worked there during my high school summer breaks, as a data entry clerk and general admin helper. I usually wasn’t in the same department as my mom, but wherever I was, everyone had only good things to say about her. (And I don’t think it was just because I was her daughter.) I remember eating lunch with her and the rest of the accounting team; they were really good friends and laughed a lot. I know she’s still friends with those colleagues to this day.
Another distinct memory I have, is how much extra work my mom put in. This was in the late 1980’s, so technology was very rudimentary. Any of you remember these ancient artifacts? Dot matrix printers. Printed cheques. DOS-based computers. Fax machines!
I remember my mom going into the office on the weekend to do work. My dad would go to help her, and I was too young to be left at home, so I had to go too. At the time, I had no idea what she was doing, or why she had to work on a Sunday. The office was completely deserted except for the three of us.
Only recently did I ask my mom what on earth she did during those weekends. She told me that went in just to do the cheque run – i.e. to print cheques! Granted, it was huge company, so we’re talking thousands of cheques in one batch. It doesn’t make sense unless you remember that with dot matrix printers, the cheques have those tear-off hole-punched sides that must be perfectly aligned in the printer, or the whole batch would get mis-printed or jammed. (I personally experienced this with school reports that got ruined, especially right before the deadline.)
So my mom, being the diligent perfectionist that she is, would go in on Saturday or Sunday, and with my dad’s help, make sure the thousands of cheques were printed properly and ready to go on Monday morning.
When I finally learned this, I was full of questions. Did anyone ask you to go in? Did they pay you for overtime? Why was it so important to be done Monday morning? Didn’t they plan for cheques to be printed during normal work hours? What was the big deal if the cheques weren’t done for Monday?
My mom patiently explained that yes, cheques could have been printed on Monday morning, because the “deadline” (i.e. internal schedule) was to have them completed by noon on Monday, ready to be manually separated and stuffed into envelopes for mailing. But with the dot matrix printer, the slightest problem would cause delays. And other people needed the same printer, so you’d end up tying up a shared resource for most of the day. And because there was no direct deposit, employees waiting for their expense reimbursement would be calling and complaining right away. So instead of dealing with all that hassle, my mom would rather go in on the weekend and get it all done. “It was less stressful for me,” she said.
Screenshots from my owned copy of the movie Office Space
I get it – but I don’t get it. I’m not blaming my mom, or my dad, or even the dot matrix printer. Now that I’m a Chartered Professional Accountant myself, and have run multiple finance departments – I can imagine the underlying system problems, and think of many solutions.
But here’s the thing. It’s not (just) a technology issue. They could have had advanced laser printers and direct deposits, and my mom would still have had reasons to work weekends.
Have you heard the phrase “immigrants get it done”? I have, many times – and it’s been popularized by shows like Shark Tank. And I hate it. It perpetuates the model minority myth, and has even been used as a badge of pride, or a “business case” for diversity. “Immigrants are resilient,” the theory goes. “They have valuable skills that benefit companies today.”
Yes, they do. But that doesn’t mean companies should benefit from them.
Wait a minute, you say – your mom volunteered to work weekends. No one forced her; she did it of her own volition. It benefitted herself as much as it did the company. Didn’t it?
My mom is an immigrant woman who grew up in a British colony. I am an immigrant woman who grew up in a colonized country. We both learned to please our bosses and companies by the quality and quantity of work we did. (My mom says she got time off in lieu as compensation for her weekend work – but knowing her, she never really took it.)
This is an unhealthy way of working, for the employee, and the employer.
If companies are serious about building equitable, diverse, and inclusive workplaces – it can’t just be about promoting more women and hiring racialized people. It’s as much about changing the way you work, as it is who works for you.
I don’t know what my mom’s boss, a white woman, thought about the weekend cheque printing at the time. Here’s what I wish she had done.
I wish the boss had changed the schedule to allow more time for troubleshooting. I wish she had explained to all employees the issues behind cheque printing, and why they need to be patient for their money. I wish she had assigned another person to help my mom (besides my dad). I wish she had gone to her bosses and told them the process needed to be redesigned.
Most of all, I wish she had told my mom she could not come in on the weekends to do this, that they would find other ways to make a stressful process less stressful.
Maybe the boss did all of those things, I don’t know. I remember her as a really nice person, and I’m sure she did her best. But the fact is that my mom tried to fix a broken system with her own labour. And that also impacted her family.
There comes a time when simply accepting unhealthy behaviour, becomes actively endorsing it.
It’s 2021, and dot matrix printers are long gone. But the same kind of systemic issues exist.
Employers – you can change what is acceptable in your workplace. Please, stop pretending that it’s OK for women to come back from maternity leave because she’s “needed” on an important client (which she'll of course lose if she doesn't return). Stop believing women are less experienced than male colleagues because they "lost a year" raising a child. Stop expecting immigrants to work for free or lower pay, just so they can gain "Canadian" experience. Stop talking about burnout and mental health while employees are overworked, trying to meet impossible deadlines and performance metrics.
Changing your diversity and inclusivity of all employees – women, men, gender diverse, racialized – is more than just changing your demographics. It’s changing the way you work.
My mom is amazing. She raised me, and worked, and sacrificed, and takes care of people, and does it without asking.
My mom is an immigrant woman. She got things done.
But I wish she didn’t have to.
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