Writer Heather Bolen didn’t set out to go viral. But her blog asking LinkedIn to make a simple platform fix soon became a rallying cry for women seeking to re-enter the workforce. Her post, which unexpectedly touched a nerve, tackled implicit hiring biases against women and society’s ongoing devaluation of caregiving roles. Hear how Heather’s persistence paid off—and why millions of stay-at-home parents looking to go back to work have her to thank.
00:06 - 00:15
Welcome to Women and Wealth, I'm Beata Kirr, Co-head of Investment Strategies at Bernstein, and this podcast aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth.
00:19 - 01:35
Well, hello, everybody. I am here with Heather Bolen today. And Heather Bolen is a former executive at Starbucks Coffee. And today she is a writer and a founder of Travel and Culture Salon, which is an awesome collection of curated online courses for history, art and those that love travel. And why I'm sitting down with Heather today is actually unrelated to her travel and culture writing. It is one hundred percent related to a post that went viral in March and that post challenged LinkedIn, which has been around for two decades now almost, to make a very simple platform fix. What made that post go viral and what was that platform fix? Well, it is Heather's article that she published on Medium that suggested we need a new job title for a stay at home parent to be available on LinkedIn. And it is something that LinkedIn now has today. So we're going to talk to Heather about how that article came to be, how persistence paid off, and why millions of stay at home parents and in particular moms who are looking to go back to work really have her to thank. So, Heather, thank you so much for joining me today.
01:36 - 02:14
Thank you for the kind introduction. I wrote the article as an indirect reaction to the challenges I had faced updating my LinkedIn profile after a number of years at home as a stay at home mom. And intuitively, I knew getting back into the workforce was going to be difficult. I had concerns, despite my credentials of having a master's degree and a successful corporate career, I was worried about how long I'd been away from the workforce. I was worried that employers would be worried about my age and get all of that seemed kind of abstract until I sat down to update my LinkedIn profile. And that's when reality kind of slapped me in the face a little bit. Yes.
02:14 - 02:25
Let's go back in time and talk about, you know, how long you had been out of the workforce and then when you were starting to consider writing an article like this. And then how did this article come to be? Let's go through the details of that.
02:25 - 03:28
I've been out of the workforce for just over a decade. And what specifically prompted this, I sat down to update my profile. And for lack of a better place to start, I had typed into the job title category "Mom," and I didn't know what to expect, but I was certainly disappointed when the only option that popped up was homemaker, which of course is a very antiquated term and brings to mind not just stay at home mom, but stay at home wife. So being kind of stuck there, I moved on to the employment type section of my profile, hoping that there would be a way to capture my unpaid care work.. And there, too, there was no option for maternity leave or or parental leave and there were zero options for any type of leave whatsoever. At that point, I felt pretty shut down, silenced, and I was only one step, one of trying to relaunch my career. So it felt demoralized. It was an emotional moment and I felt ashamed. I was embarrassed for having stayed home with my kids.
03:28 - 03:43
And then that's... we can have a whole episode talking about why that's certainly not the feeling that you should feel, because staying home with your kids is not only incredibly important, but I think everybody that stays home knows, it's incredibly difficult.
03:43 - 04:43
There is a tremendous amount of logistics involved. And I have seen people post, Chief Executive Officer of the Kirr household, or chief operating officer of household. I've seen these workarounds in LinkedIn that people have used historically to describe their really important role working from the home.. So you got to this point of feeling demoralized and demotivated. And by the way, there's a Harvard study that shows that stay at home moms are half as likely to get an interview as moms who were laid off. And there is this unfortunate kind of inherent bias in screening. The reason is that it feels like there's a kind of "less than" interpretation on that gap on the resume. And so I'm sure your feeling is not... you're not alone and having felt that way. But it sounds like your next step was instead of kind of spiraling downward, you said to yourself something different.
04:44 - 05:29
Exactly. Writing the article definitely was an emotional outlet. But then it did turn into an inspiration, so to speak, to share my experience and use my voice to try to shift the conversation around unpaid caregiving work. And to your point, from my vantage point, while the decision to leave my job had been A family decision, the bottom line was that I had given up my career to support my husband's career and raise our two children, and during the 10 years that I was at home, we had relocated four times, including an international assignment. I had taken on various community leadership roles. So I felt that I had a laundry list of transferable skills from that experience and was even had more to offer than earlier in my career.
05:29 - 06:20
But there was no... nowhere to talk about that. It was as if I was supposed to dodge that family question, so to speak. And I did. I poked around and certainly there were lots of women using those workarounds that you just mentioned, like family CEO, family COO. And I, too, had used one of those titles briefly, but it never sat well. And part of that reason is that those titles are pulled from the traditional male work world. And by not calling out a caregiving role for what it is, we perpetuate the invisibility of caregiving roles and we devalue it. There was that and I was also just dismayed at this day and age that women have to have these cutesy workarounds to justify something as essential as being a mother or hire a consultant to spin-doctor the mom part of their resume.
06:21 - 06:31
It's it's frustrating. It's more than frustrating, right. You're trying to squeeze an experience that is incredibly relevant into a construct that didn't allow for it.
06:31 - 06:55
Exactly. And I had the resources to help with that, with my re-entry if I so chose. But not everybody can afford that. It's this need to... for women to resort to gimmicks and bear the entire burden of framing up their caregiving roles in a culture that discounts that work. That got me angry and subsequently motivated to kind of flip the script and put pressure on the system to change.
06:55 - 07:20
So I am picturing you up and I don't know why I picture that everybody writes things at three a.m. but like, you tell me, was there a 3:00 a.m. involved? But I'm picturing you going back to your laptop and furiously typing out this article that really represented your views and your experience. Tell me a little bit more about that. What did you publish? How many words was it? Where did you publish it? And then what happened?
07:20 - 08:29
So I have to laugh because there's... it can be misleading to talk about something going viral or having an overnight success, because there's often a lot of work behind that one sensational moment. And in the case of my article, it was a lot of furiously typing in that first...like I said, that first draft was very emotional, but the article itself went through countless self-imposed revisions. And then over a six-month period, I pitched it all over the place and no one bit. So I was feeling quite demoralized and and really felt I could have not predicted the overwhelming response or the real change that my article ultimately prompted. But I did feel it would resonate if I could just get it out there. And it was so hard to get it out there. And after six months or so of pitching it, it was kind of weighing on my psyche and I knew I needed to offload it somehow. So as Women's History Month rolled around, I made a decision to publish it on Medium on International Women's Day. That was kind of the background to it getting noticed, because at that point, Fortune magazine noticed it and brought it to LinkedIn attention and asked for the response to the criticisms I'd raised.
08:29 - 09:07
So you could publish this on Medium, like you said, on International Women's Day. Now, Fortune picked it up and republished the article and brought it to LinkedIn's attention. Obviously, you're in the middle of this and front and center of this as the author of this article, I think you were telling me then BBC picked it up. It's been republished in so many different places. So it spiraled, right? It went viral. It spiraled. There was this maelstrom of activity around your content. You started this. So what do you think it was about that moment and why when you had this experience and talked about it, do you think it it spiraled the way that it did?
09:08 - 09:45
So in part, I think it's timing. I think the pandemic has exposed the exhaustion and the frustrations of women and mothers everywhere. I also think in large part it resonated and was... and it blew up, so to speak, because what I asked for was very actionable and very reasonable. It was really important to me to go for the quick win, so to speak. I didn't write an article looking to solve systemic gender bias, but proposed a very concrete fix that could be accomplished with relative ease. And I think it's a very tangible, immediate tool for women trying to re-enter the workforce.
09:46 - 10:24
Yeah, and, you know, kudos to you, because LinkedIn responded. When they were confronted by the story, they pivoted and pretty quickly have changed their platform to allow options like stay at home Mom, Dad, Parent. They've also added parental leave, sabbatical, family leave, and so almost 20 years of LinkedIn being out there with these categories to choose from, it wasn't there. And now it is. And so is really exciting, Heather, that you used your energy in this way to ultimately make what is a really big change for the long run.
10:24 - 10:33
Do you think it'll make a difference to you in terms of other moms feeling this way or other caregivers feeling this way? Do you think I'll make a difference?
10:33 - 11:50
I do. I think one way to answer that question is to ask the question if we can ever see it going back. And I don't think we can. That way, I think it's made a lasting impact. And by LinkedIn jumping into this dialogue and making changes to stay relevant to its users and actively committing to diversity and inclusion, they've set a precedent for their own platform so that as we evolve as a society, if this comes up in the future, they've set that precedent and they've also set an example for other companies. On a human level, I was very fortunate to be able to stay home with my kids. It was a choice I made. We had the means to accommodate it. But for many women, especially now during the pandemic, taking unpaid leave, it's forced upon them. They're forced to choose between work and child care or some other caregiving demand. And so this change offers primary caregivers the chance to address a gap in their work history openly, and in turn that forces recruiters and employers to talk more openly about it. And the hope, I would think, is that by talking openly, we develop empathy for job seekers. And I think empathy is the key to tackling some of those harder questions, like affordable child care, paid leave, flexible work arrangements, returnship programs, et cetera.
11:51 - 12:38
There has been a rise in returnship programs across corporate America.. And I am hopeful that with this it'll even accelerate that further, especially post pandemic. As we know and we've talked about quite a bit on this show that we have called this recession, along with many others,, the she-cession, that more women than men have been affected by unemployment or underemployment or inability to manage the household responsibilities alongside the work responsibilities. So, so kudos to you for using your energy in this way, even if it was unexpected, the outcomes, you're really a hero of the moment of this kind of bright light in this period of time of how change can happen and how it can happen really quickly. So it's great.
12:38 - 12:45
Let's talk about you now, not just the article, but what are you doing now? Tell us about what you decided to do.
12:45 - 13:18
Well, I did a lot of soul searching during quarantine. My original plan had been to devote more time to my writing now that we were back in the States and didn't anticipate another move. My kids were transitioning from elementary into middle school. So I had been able to get more and more chunks of focused, creative time. And there I was with a completed first draft of a novel and a pile of short stories to shop around. And at that glorious moment, my world turned a bit upside down with the divorce and the pandemic.
13:19 - 14:32
So, you know, divorce is not very kind hearted, financially speaking. So my knee-jerk reaction was I need to go get a real job. And in my head at that time, that meant a corporate job. But I was reluctant for all the reasons we've just talked about. I was worried about bias against stay at home moms. I was worried about ageism and I didn't feel that competitive. I was also worried about the lack of part time or flex time opportunities that I could be present for my kids, which was even more of a concern given that they were coping with a divorce and remote learning. And I was also reluctant because I felt like I was giving up a dream after so many years of putting it on hold. So it was when I... it really was when I hit the roadblock with LinkedIn that I started toying with the idea of striking out on my own and looking for ways to combine my love of writing, of travel, art, culture, etc.. And it was also the anticipated boom in online learning post pandemic, as well as a pent up demand for travel that I got the idea to start an online curated courses for niche topics in art, history and culture. It's fabulous.
14:32 - 14:34
And has that been going well?
14:34 - 14:40
We're at the early stages, so it's all very exciting and scary, but it's getting product launched.
14:41 - 14:43
Do you want to tell our listeners what your website it is?
14:43 - 14:52
So if we're interested in these curated courses, where might we find them? You can find them at HeatherBolan.com and there you can find all of my writing as well as the course offerings.
14:52 - 15:17
Great. Well, we look forward to seeing what develops there. So congrats to you in terms of the pivot and choosing the entrepreneurial route. And like you said, life doesn't always kind of make lemonade the way that we wanted and the lemons come, and it's like, how do we get the lemonade?? And we've talked to a lot of women on this show and in particular about pivoting and responding to the circumstances that life brings all of us.
15:17 - 15:43
So, in fact, I was listening to your previous podcast with Romi from FairyGodBoss, and she mentions the concept of flow. And while I wasn't operating within the language of the concept of flow, I realized in listening to it that that that's what I've been doing during this period of time, was looking for that sweet spot of the activities that challenged me in between the activity that challenged me, the ones that bore me, and it caused me to pivot.
15:43 - 16:13
Yeah, I was going to reference that myself too, that this idea, there's a lot of similarities in what she experienced also with the corporate world versus seeking out her own venture and, in the end, to be true to yourself and your flow and your strengths often leads to greater success than the prior construct of the corporate world. Like you said, what you thought would be success is now really being redefined and that's being redefined for so many people post pandemic, especially as a lot of people rethink their employment decisions.
16:14 - 16:37
Well, I want to wrap up our conversation and really thank you for spending the time with us. And I'm going to wrap up with the question that I ask everybody around funding your favorites and money lessons. And how do you think about what funding your favorites means to you? Or are there any specific money lessons you learned growing up that have stuck with you and you helped to instill in your children going forward?
16:38 - 17:28
Well, I think top of mind right now is the way in which life transitions really throw into relief various aspects of your life. And divorce certainly throws your finances into relief. And while my husband and I have been doing all the right things and we were kind of humming along financially, divorce puts a strain on finances.. And I find myself much more aware, hyperaware more of money and things like my retirement plan. But I'm also very aware of the way in which my life has been segmented and that I have a new chapter and that means a new financial chapter. And for the first time in a very long time, I'm not necessarily looking at my finances in terms of the family as much as I am now looking at it as my personal finance, my future as an individual.
17:28 - 18:19
So that's been top of mind and it's caused me to think a lot about my mom, who... she and my dad got divorced when I was very young, and it was at a time when divorce was not common, and being a single mom was certainly challenging. And she had married young and hadn't gone to college and after the divorce, put herself through a four-year program, got her degree, worked her way up from secretarial positions into an executive level positions. And her discipline certainly stayed with me my whole life. So, too, has been her fierce devotion to gaining and maintaining financial independence. And that's what's so poignant for me right now in this chapter is maybe not as much from a practical standpoint, but from a philosophical and emotional standpoint of gaining that financial independence. As I move into this starting over at the age of 50, it's scary and it's exciting.
18:19 - 18:36
Well, that's great. And it's interesting to hearken back to the lessons you learned as a kid from your mother. And then your daughter and son. Right. Well, I appreciate that equally. So any last thoughts, Heather? What we didn't get to that you like our listeners to hear about now?
18:36 - 18:45
I think we've done a great overview of the impact of the changes LinkedIn made and how it's going to help thousands of women trying to re-enter the workforce.
18:45 - 18:47
Well, thanks again for joining me today.
18:47 - 18:48
Thank you so much for having me.
18:49 - 18:58
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18:58 - 19:15
You can also find us on Twitter at BernsteinPWM, or find me, Beata Kirr, on LinkedIn. Bernstein: Making money meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at Bernstein.com.
- Beata Kirr
- Co-Head—Investment Strategies