Working Moms Face a New Challenge: Performance Review Season

performance review anxiety

In a year where many mothers scaled back at work–and not by choice–they are wrestling with how to tout their career accomplishments.

We asked workplace experts how moms should navigate this potential land mine.

“What were your achievements this year? Did you meet your goals? How did your efforts advance our company’s mission?”

Staring at her annual workplace evaluation, Natalie G. was stunned into silence. How–in a year with two kids at home and all of her normal support networks cut off–could she describe what she achieved professionally? As an editor, she was responsible for a certain number of signed author contracts, but her work output took a dive as she juggled the demands of kids, remote learning and then finally, taking nine weeks off under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), the emergency paid federal family leave plan enacted during the pandemic.

“Does it count that I was able to keep sane during this time?” she asked.

As the pandemic stretches past its one-year anniversary, many working mothers are facing workplace evaluations and feeling the break-out-into-hives stress of tallying up their accomplishments. Does it count as an achievement if a child attended class in the living room while their parent responded to emails? Sat quietly through a parent’s Zoom meeting? Or entertained themselves without a screen, while their parents frantically met their own work deadlines? And for those, like Natalie, who feel that they have missed their goals, how constructive is it to be candid with their employers about how the juggling of kids, home and work has taken a toll on their work product?

How performance reviews will be conducted in this era will be dependent upon the employer and manager, said Georgene Huang, the co-founder and CEO of Fairygodboss, an online career community for women which shares advice and support about jobs.

“Some companies have forgone the performance evaluations entirely, and been really public in doing so,” Huang said, citing Google, among other technology companies. “Others are just telling their employees to have flexibility and understanding. And a ton are doing the ‘same old, same old.’ It’s just down to the manager to decide.”

Much of a workplace’s attitude toward performance reviews could be a product of how much flexibility they’ve allowed their employees to have during a year where work life and home life meshed so closely. Huang has also noticed a shift in workplace attitudes with the new calendar year. Employers who had once been more amenable to flexibility and compassion for unusual circumstances expect working parents “to have figured this out by now.”

Change the Expectations

Deborah Kerson Bilek, a vice president at a big global nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C., feels that the onus is on companies and managers to be reasonable in their goals. If the goals of the organization have to shift, the individual goals would shift too. “The performance review should reflect that,” she said.

Kerson Bilek has five direct reports, and she’s worked to create an environment where her team can be open and honest about their challenges, even as their pre-pandemic goals have adjusted. The programs she and her team run have moved from in-person events to virtual ones. This, she says, has changed her mentality in how she evaluates success at work. “It makes us have to ask different questions and develop new answers.”

And as a working parent, Kerson Bilek fully understands the effort required to ‘switch’ her brain between parenting and work during a day. The concept of “flow,” where one’s mind is engaged in a task and simulates deep, creative thinking, is easily interrupted with children at home, needing help, validation, snacks, Zoom school supplies–the list goes on. Interrupting flow to respond to children and then switching back to work is exhausting and can lead to burnout and depression.

“The amount of switching I’ve had to do this year is unsustainable,” said Kerson Bilek.

Even as the pandemic has disrupted industries and places of employment across the country, it’s still women bearing the brunt of it. Women are more likely to have lost their jobs, feel a drop in ambition, suffer depression, or quit their jobs altogether. And in performance reviews, where women are more likely than men to underrate their accomplishments, face gender bias and receive harsher feedback, it can be particularly grueling this year to have to tout our successes when there have been so many obstacles to meeting our usual goals.

Play Offense

Huang recommends women not wait until the performance review to start addressing the change in goals and expectations, and instead request a mini performance review along the way to avoid an unseen surprise. “These conversations should have been happening all along,” she said. “So many people are still remotely working, without that nonverbal communication present. Get clear with your manager about expectations: ‘These are my goals, I want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

Being upfront about expectations and goals ahead of time allows an employee to avoid playing defense if they’re on the receiving end of negative feedback. For working moms who might face more scrutiny after this particularly tough year, Huang recommends preparing a list of accomplishments from the review time period and the positive impact those achievements had at the company. She also recommends practicing answers for any anticipated negative criticism and having a plan ready for how to fix things and move forward. “Showing your manager that you’re aware of certain areas of your work that need improvement will make them feel more confident in your ability to self-manage and hopefully mitigate any negative criticism they may have,” Huang wrote in a follow-up email.

“Generally speaking, it’s fine to mention that you are managing caregiving responsibilities at home, but the level of detail shared depends on the level of supportiveness of your workplace,” said Chloe Bass, a certified professional coach at Making Working Motherhood Work. And if a working mother chooses to bring up those caregiving responsibilities in a review, they can do so in the context of what they’ve been able to accomplish even with external challenging factors.

After seeking out feedback from other moms in similar workplace situations, Natalie opted to focus on how her goals would be met going forward, when her children returned to school. In her evaluation, she specified that her schedule would more closely resemble her previous life when her children returned to full-time school in April.

“I did opt against deciding to remind my boss that I’d taken leave,” she said. Even while the option and flexibility to take paid leave had been a lifesaver that previous summer, she felt that it wasn’t best to bring it back up in the context of her overall performance. They came up with a plan to meet next year’s goals.

“We did it in a straightforward way,” Natalie said of the experience. “We focused on the goals for next year. I’ve already signed a few books for this year, so we decided it would be realistic.” An editorial assistant was promoted to take on more responsibility to help with Natalie’s workload. “She’ll get to do more work to help me, and she got a promotion,” Natalie said of her coworker. “So that’s a win-win for all of us.”


In a year where many mothers scaled back at work–and not by choice–they are wrestling with how to tout their career accomplishments.

We asked workplace experts how moms should navigate this potential land mine.

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