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We hear a lot about the gender gap in pay, but dig deeper and you’ll see it’s not gender that’s the issue. Young, childless women earn more than similar men. Mothers? That’s a different story, and while there are many factors leading to lower pay, discrimination is definitely one of them.

Research finds that women identified as mothers are less likely to be hired and are deemed to be less promotable. Employers may doubt mothers’ commitment to work (“she’ll quit if her husband gets a better job”) or assume they won’t put in long hours when necessary. Women can find themselves “mommy tracked” into assignments with fewer demands—hence less opportunity to advance.

While it’s true that some women do want to dial things down after having kids, others don’t. And for women in this latter category, this perception of being less productive post-kids can be especially frustrating, as many women find they’re actually more productive as they become experts in juggling their full lives.

So, how do today’s working moms keep their careers on the fast track after having kids? Here’s what I’ve gathered from my research tracking the habits of some of the happiest working women I know.

They voice their ambitions.

When new moms first return from maternity leave, a lot of people assume they want to ease up. So if that’s not the case, it’s wise to tell everyone. Meet with your boss and reach an agreement on a timetable for getting promoted. Say explicitly that you see yourself with your organization long term. If you want to be particularly strategic, meet with the higher-ups you think will be most likely to nudge you toward the mommy track, and ask their advice on how to keep your career throttling forward. Everyone loves giving advice; such conversations just might turn doubters into mentors.

Some consider working exactly as they did before.

This is one obvious way to counter any impressions that you’re less productive. One lawyer told me she’s kept herself on the fast track “basically by following the exact same schedule as before children.” She generally works 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., does weekend hours when necessary, and never says no to travel. When kid events come up midday, she will block the time on her calendar but not explicitly mention it’s for kid stuff. While following the same schedule as before is easiest, if you have a co-parent who can take on primary parenting duties, adequate childcare can make it doable, too. Something to consider: Working into the evenings doesn’t mean you’ll never see your kids; many little ones get up at the crack of dawn. If your kids rise at 6 a.m. and you leave for work at 8:30 a.m., that’s 2.5 hours, which is enough time to read stories, play, and do the other things you’d do in the evening, with the bonus of everyone being fresher than they are at 6 p.m.

Others embrace the split shift.

If the above idea doesn’t work for you, consider ways you might work flexibly to still log the same number of hours. If you need to make daycare pick-up, can you do more work at night after your kids go to bed? Jessica Turner, a hospital social media and marketing manager who also runs the blog The Mom Creative, says, “I am a stickler about not staying at work late because I don’t want to miss my evenings with my family. That said, I am often on email late at night or first thing in the morning ensuring that communication from me is always received on time. I also communicate how I will fill gaps if I am leaving early or coming in late. Many times erroneous perception can be prevented by communication.” A side note: Sending emails at 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. is a remarkably effective way to show that you’re still in the game. That said, if you’re managing people who have trouble setting boundaries, you might be careful about sending emails at crazy times (some people might feel compelled to respond to their boss—i.e., you—instantly).

They deliver, every time.

It’s surprising how many people—not just moms—miss deadlines or are late for important meetings, citing excuses that aren’t really excuses. (“There was traffic!” But when is there not?) People flake on obligations for all sorts of reasons, but smart women understand that all their flakiness will be blamed on their having kids—and it will reinforce any prejudice that already exists. Cathy Green, who works for a nonprofit, notes, “I deliver every time on the commitments I make.” Good childcare helps with this: “I don’t have my children at home when I am working from home. They are at school or in childcare, and if they are ill and we can’t get childcare for them, my husband and I share taking time off if needed.” It takes work, but working moms I know build up layers of back-up childcare and think several moves ahead (like a chess master) so that they don’t find themselves missing a flight to a conference when their nanny comes down with the flu. Natalie de Paulsen, who works for an administrative tribunal in the intellectual property field, says, “Set a new normal of getting things done before they are due. No kid-related excuses ever.” If you miss a deadline, it’s not your kids’ fault; it’s yours for not planning ahead. Keep that mindset, and you’ll be more proactive about life in general.

They log their time.

An unfortunate reality: Some childless workers believe they’re constantly picking up the slack for parents. This narrative gets particular traction in white-collar environments where there’s no accountability for hours. But you can counter these impressions by keeping records of how you spend your time. Note when you’re working, both in the office and out of the office. Naomi Cogger, an academic who works in epidemiology, says that she tracked her time, her days in the office, and her colleagues’ days in the office so that “when the questions arose, I had the data to say, ‘I do as much face time on average.’” Document your major accomplishments, too, both so you know they happen and so you can share them. It’s hard to view someone as less productive when evidence of their productivity is clear and abundant.

They do what’s valued.

De Paulsen says, “Think very strategically about what is measured and valued at your office, and focus your work on high-profile projects.” The year before she had her son, she spent a lot of time preparing case studies and other such “housekeeping” projects. “All were appreciated but none highly valued. After returning from maternity leave, I volunteered for a high-profile policy project—where I became the expert for my tribunal on a particular area and worked on new regulations. I work fewer hours on this one project but am seen as contributing more.” In many organizations, things that directly bring in revenue (or save big bucks) are seen as most important. Being the public face of a project can be risky but can also make your career.

They continue to build relationships.

The dirty secret about getting into management is that it’s not just about how well you do your job. It’s also about whether other people like you and trust you and therefore want to do their best work for you. Such trust is built up in relaxed time spent together—e.g., the happy hours or team dinners that working mothers sometimes skip or race out of under some mistaken notion that missing bedtime for even one day is a sign of maternal failure. You don’t have to go every day, but spending relaxed time with your colleagues is a great use of an extra two hours of childcare per week (if you’re co-parenting, you can swap nights with your partner). Avoid the temptation to eat lunch at your desk every day. It might seem productive, but you’ll miss out on building the informal networks that are key to advancement. This is why many working moms grab a few colleagues to go get lunch or a drink together at least a few times per week. Try to invite people from other departments occasionally, too (or external people you’d like to get to know).

They believe in themselves.

It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. If you view yourself as just as valuable and amazing professionally as you were before kids, other people will sense that confidence. “You do not have to apologize for having a family,” says Kelli Brown, founder and CEO of a digital marketing agency and the mother of five children under age 10. “How we think about ourselves and our situations colors everything, and it’s important to come from a place of strength instead of embarrassment or shame when we approach our careers.”

Photo Credit: Ashley Crawford