Finding balance in a big career

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

Liz* has two children aged 3 and 6. Having spent a number of years in Big Jobs, she’s taken six months off to reassess and find a new opportunity. We talked about defining what success means to you, and balancing big jobs with family.

Jumping straight into a big job

With an early career as a grad in one of the big 4 accounting firms, later moving onto an ASX listed company where her career flourished. She had her first child, and while she was on parental leave got offered a role as Chief of Staff. 

She went back to work when her daughter was 11 months old and straight into a huge job.

“I was working with the CEO, and flexibility and diversity weren’t his strong points. He was working around the clock and [my baby] was 11 months old.”

She hung on and later moved into a role she helped create. Pre-COVID, she asked to work from home one day a week and the CEO just said, ‘No’. So, Liz went back to work full time, and a year later went on parental leave again to have her son. 

There were some issues with the people covering her role while she was away, and they were desperate for her to return. Knowing she had some negotiating power, she asked to work three days a week.

“It was a new boss and he said, whatever you want we’ll make it happen.”

When part time eats into all your time

But like almost every woman featured in Beyond the 9 to 5, Liz couldn’t stick to part time hours.

“I was officially three days, but I was working every night, weekends, and more than full time.”

She was, at least, paid for the time she worked. But she found it hard to balance the time she wanted with her children against work responsibilities.

“The downside of it is that you’re doing it all. You’re trying to have time with the kids and allocated these days [to childcare], and the role is still a big role. So, every single night you’re having to work till 11pm and work weekends, so you’re not the best at any of them.”

This challenge of not feeling like you’re performing at either family life or work life is a hugely common theme amongst the women I speak to. Liz isn’t sure if it’s really even possible.

“It allows you to work flexibly, because you can work the hours you choose. But I’ve never really seen anyone being able to really stick to 3-4 days. Things always creep in.”

Mothers show workplace loyalty 

Despite the long hours, Liz liked the level of responsibility and generally found her work rewarding. But she realised she had reached a cap in the organisation and wasn’t likely to go further.

“Every time an executive role came up, the Board would bring in an external. I knew I’d reached my cap years ago, but I’d stayed because having the kids I didn’t want to go into a new organisation where I had no credibility.”

“I knew the people, I knew the business better than all the new recruits they were bringing in above me. I knew I could do anything and do it well and succeed while juggling little kids.”

Liz openly shared a point that is becoming clearer through Beyond the 9 to 5 – mothers are ‘sticky’ employees. They’re also the most efficient people in the workforce, and they remain in roles longer once they know they can deliver strong performance while also being supported with the flexibility to manage their children. 

Women want meaningful careers, and they will demonstrate a huge amount of company loyalty to places that support their development whilst also enabling them to be active in their children’s lives.

Finding the right next opportunity

When women are out of work, they spend longer than men looking for the right opportunity. That includes the opportunity itself, but also commute time, flexibility, and the ability to manage family around work. 

Liz has been no different. After resigning with six months’ notice in July and finishing up in December, she took six months to find her next opportunity. 

“I was adamant that I was going to hold out for the right role.”

Liz said no to a number of opportunities, and eventually took a role that gave her learning opportunities without requiring her to focus on only work.

“One role required a lot of international travel and I wasn’t prepared to do that with the kids so young. Another role was a CEO role, and I didn’t want to work 7 days a week. I thought I’d rather wait until the kids are older before I take it.”

But she didn’t feel she could be honest that her family commitments were driving the decision and gave different reasons about the roles when saying no, to keep her options open in the future.

When working mothers feel exploited

In one organisation during her interviews, she discovered a phenomenon that she didn’t like at all.

“[They] were particularly keen on getting working mums. I was so put off by that because working mums are like this gold nugget. She is your most efficient, switched on resource and you know you’ve scored the lottery when you’ve got a working mum. [They] have openly identified this is how they will best succeed – three men at the top of a business that will be really solely filled with working mums.”

Her discomfort with that business model is similar to Amanda’s story, where she shared: “If you look at law firms through a gender lens, you could say that one gender is fuelling the success of another gender because of an entrenched business model.”

Redefining success and happiness

When deciding how to create balance in our lives, the definition of what makes life successful and meaningful is what determines the balance that will make us happy. As Liz’s children get a bit older, and following many years of ‘greedy jobs’, she’s in the process of reevaluating what she wants from her career.

“I was looking for an executive role that’s commercial and strategic, and this is exactly that. It’s not necessarily an inspiring CEO or a big organisation, but I get the sense they don’t work very hard so I’m hoping I can get more balance. I’ve never really been able to do drop offs and picks ups, I’ve always worked.”

Now Liz is looking forward to starting her new role, spending some more time with her children, and getting a new type of balance in her life that involves a meaningful career, time for exercise and herself, and spending more time with her small humans. 

*not her real name. Because of the stigma faced by working mothers, the motherhood penalty, and the challenges of the juggle, the women in this series have chosen to remain anonymous. 

If you would like to share your story, please send me a message!

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