Is it imposter syndrome, or is it poor workplace culture?

Women at work, beyond the 9 to 5: The untold realities of working mothers’ lives.

Amy* has a daughter who is three-and-a-half and a 14 month old son. She worked full time, at home four days a week and in the office one. We spoke about hiding pregnancy at work and when job hunting, domestic labour imbalance, and workplace culture.

Is it imposter syndrome, or is it poor workplace culture?

Prior to her daughter’s birth, Amy was,

“relentlessly chasing a promotion that was endlessly out of reach.”

She wonders aloud if it was imposter syndrome that caused some of her issues, but also shared some insights into the workplace culture that explained a lot.

“There was a lot of discussion about wanting to promote women in leadership, but there was still an element of questioning whether you could lead a high-pressure team in a managerial role if you were pregnant.”

Amy* somehow managed to hide per pregnancy for 30 weeks at work, because she was chasing a promotion that always seemed to be slightly out of reach. When she finally gave up and announced her pregnancy, she was told, ‘Well you say you’ll be off for six months but we don’t know when you’ll really be back’. 

The strong insinuation was that as soon as she said she was pregnant her workplace would question her ability to handle the workload and team.

These unconscious biases drive decisions in every organisation that doesn’t interrogate that bias. But many companies don’t listen to what their women are saying and never get to the bottom of the issues. All too often, employees feel and understand the hidden message but still end up blaming themselves. Amy even shared,

“I might have just been being sensitive but that’s how I felt.”

The proof is in the post-pregnancy pudding

Despite wondering whether it might be imposter syndrome or sensitivity, Amy also shared that she saw plenty of women leave for parental leave and return to a different role.

“There was also always a sentiment of, ‘what are we going to do with her when she comes back?’.

I think we can agree that once the systemic barriers are clear, it’s not just women being sensitive.

Hiding pregnancy when job hunting

Because of her experience chasing a promotion that was never coming, Amy decided to keep her second pregnancy quiet when she was interviewing for her current job. Because of COVID, the interviews were online so they never saw her growing bump.

“I was worried they would take the offer off the table if they found out I was pregnant. I was in negotiation for 4 months, so I got to the end of that process and told them that I was pregnant.”

Knowing what she knows now about her current employer, Amy wishes she’d shared her pregnancy earlier. She knows it wouldn’t have affected her prospects and she might have felt less pressure. But with story after story after story of women being sidelined after they have a baby, it’s no wonder she didn’t want to risk it.

“That past experience impressed on me that you had to be secretive about being pregnant. It really affected my level of psychological safety, and when I went back after six months maternity leave with [my first], it was really daunting.” 

In her old workplace, Amy felt like she had to pretend her daughter wasn’t around or part of her life while she was at work.

“I felt I had to pretend she wasn’t there a lot of the time. It’s a very different feeling of almost hiding the fact that your child even exists.”

Balancing the high earner with the home worker

Australia has a strong male breadwinner model, meaning that due to systemic barriers, men often progress faster than women early in their careers. Then when children arrive, the family decision is often to prioritise the man’s career while the mother steps back. In fact, this happens even in households where the father is not the main income earner

For Amy, that’s exactly how things shaped up. Then she felt like she needed to do more of the chores at home to compensate for her lower earnings.

“Over the years his career progression was faster than mine, so I justified my slower career progression by takin on more chores, he was in the office longer, so I cooked dinner more. [Then], in the first six months of a baby’s life, unless you really push it on the dad, it’s more likely to be the mum who does things like night wakes.”

They have a similar issue to many families, where the mum notices the tasks that need doing and has to manage the dad doing tasks.

“There are a lot of videos about the mental load of the women in the household. I shouldn’t have to project manage my husband by saying, ‘can you please go and do the washing up while I put the kids to bed?’, whereas I would see it. He wants me to tell him what to do, whereas I’m like, can’t you see that needs to be done?”

“I perceive it as easier to just do it myself because I know what needs to be done. If you’re not spelling things out exactly, it gets really hard.”

Love is a balloon, patience is a pizza

Amy does note that some women seem to find it easier to expect a more even balance and get up for a break and a run. It took her 10 months into her second child’s life to feel ok leaving for a morning workout without feeling the responsibility.

“It took me a long time to give myself a Tuesday workout, and I’m doing it at 5am because everyone is guaranteed to be asleep.”

But without a break, women are crumbling.

“The first six months of my son’s life, I was definitely hanging on by a thread. [Now] there are days when I feel like I haven’t got my head above water and other days where I feel like it’s fine.”

And while she doesn’t think it’s ok, Amy thinks it’s a pretty normal experience of the first months of a baby’s life. Perfectionism and trying to be all the things to all the people increases the challenge.

“It’s the constant battle between mum guilt, worker guilt, and life guilt of having to be everything for everyone. How do you be the perfect colleague, the perfect wife, the perfect mum, the perfect friend. All these different job you have become exacerbated when you become a parent.”

But maybe even thinking you need to be perfect at anything causes too much pressure. For Amy, she needs to manage her patience and attention to avoid running out of either.

“Your love is like a balloon, it will expand to the size required, as big as it needs to be. But your attention and your patience are like a pizza, you cut it int slices and they get thinner and thinner the more things you have to give your attention and patience to. That’s the hardest thing I had to manage as I became a parent.”

Focus on the positives

We’ve all heard that phrase that we need to put on our own oxygen mask first, and Amy is the first to admit she doesn’t do that. 

“Inevitably, I’ve found myself now having even less time for myself and more willing to give up any time that I have. I always  find a way to fill it with something else. It’s really hard for me to lie down and have a nap when my baby has a nap. Even the concept of reading a book just feels like another chore I have to do.”

She wonders if it could be a need to be in control, feel needed, or provides a sense of purpose to care for her family, but also thinks it’s important to focus on the positives as well.

“What’s the good stuff that we see. I’ve focused a lot on the hard, bad, challenging stuff, but also I think that’s a very passive approach to it.”

“I do feel lucky that the pandemic hit in the way it did. I feel really lucky I was able to work from home for an extra 6-12m of my daughter’s life. I feel really lucky I was able to wrk from home with my youngest when he was a tiny baby.”

She looks to where she is in control of her experience, what she can change, and how powerful that position is.

“It’s about accepting it’s hard, and in 5 years’ time I’ll look really fondly back. That was pretty hard but it was fun.” 

*Not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and the fact that the state of women’s relationships directly affects the state of their lives and careers, the women in this series have chosen to remain anonymous.

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