The rigged system and gender fatigue

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

Donna* lives in Queensland with her two kids, ages 4 and 5, and her European husband. She jokes that Aussie guys don’t understand this patriarchal world! She works three days a week fully remotely now, following some twists and turns in her career after having children.

We chatted about the ways her career has changed (and stalled) since having children, the rigged system, rebalancing the domestic load, and gender fatigue facing companies.

Thank God for COVID

Like many women I’ve spoken with for Beyond the 9 to 5, Donna has noticed some huge benefits of the COVID transition to working from home

“Before COVID I was struggling to have to be in the office and show my face with these young children. I didn’t want to be in the office.”

She likes the face-to-face connection that comes from being in an office but found she couldn’t keep on top of anything else in her life. Fully utilising her long day care hours, and knowing school was looking in the future, Donna could not figure out how she would possibly handle it all, let alone be involved with the school!

“Covid showed the workplace that, 1. They can trust us, and 2. We put in more hours. I’m getting more done in 3 days than I was in 2 weeks.”

Companies trusting that people will work when they’re at home is interesting. In the words of a guest on my Women at Work podcast, ‘if someone is going to the beach instead of doing their work when they’re working from home, then you have a performance issue, not a flexibility issue’.

Donna transitioned to fully remotely with COVID. Now in a global role, Donna enjoys the autonomy she has over her time (even if it does mean regular 6:30am meetings with the US office).

Taking a career step back for family

Donna’s role gives her the flexibility she needs to be involved with her kids, but she admits,

“There is a bit of a purpose piece for me. I wonder whether I’ve taken a step back to provide what we need as a family now. But is it fulfilling me – no. It’s a sacrifice I’m taking.”

She has 100% made decisions in her career to enable her to parent the way she wants to.

“I want a career. I love working and it gives me purpose. But I didn’t want to have kids and not be in their lives.”

When I asked whether Donna’s ever been discriminated at work, she had a hard time answering, saying it was a bit of bias and a bit of her own choice.

“I feel like it was my choice that I couldn’t do both well. I didn’t want to fail, so I chose to go part time. There was part of me thinking, this is ridiculous! Why are we spending five days a week at work and only two at home with our families.” 

“I made a promise to myself that I can make three days work. I can show up and prove to myself and the workplace that I can still have a career at part time. This is not going to stop my career growth.”

“But my career has plateaued. My pay has not increased since I started. I was made to feel like I should be grateful that they can support me as a part time role.” 

It’s very common for women to feel like their careers stagnate when they work part time, and in fact new research has shown that men who take on caring responsibilities face the same issues with career progression.

The rigged system

Despite her best intentions, Donna noticed she was treated differently once she had children. When she came back from parental leave her new role was a step down, doing menial tasks with very little ownership. 

When she spoke up, her manager said, ‘oh, you’re not going to want to do that. You’re tired’. But Donna DID still want interesting opportunities!

“If I’m going to have to be away from my children and show up every day, it needs to be purposeful. This is not lighting me up. But I didn’t want to work so hard that I was stressed and burning out.”

Without knowing about the rigged system – the structures that expect women to have meaningful careers, be active and involved carers, and just generally do all the things – she started fighting against it.

“I just knew this wasn’t right and I wasn’t going to sign up for it.”

When we can’t (and don’t want) to do it all

Doing it all wasn’t a good solution. Donna felt like a stay at home mum and a working mum and had too much going on. She and her husband have rebalanced the load, and her early morning meetings help.

“It’s forced my husband to take on some of that load, he has to take them to school, make their lunchboxes, get them dressed. If I wasn’t on work calls, it would probably fall to me.”

Donna is highly aware of our patriarchal structures, and the work it takes to create an equal relationship.

“The push is so strong towards us doing it all, that we have to continually have this conversation.”

Referencing Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play system, Donna acknowledges it has to be an ongoing conversation.

“It’s all good and well divvying up the tasks, but how does it continue on? I work in our home now, so this is my workplace. In the morning, I don’t want to open my door and the house is a f*cking sh!t fight. [My husband and I] had the conversation and it lasted about two days. Now he’s saying he can’t do it. You feel like you’re raising three children, not two.”

She does share that one of the joys of her relationship is the focus her husband puts on life and experiences. They’ve had to negotiate what is ‘good enough’ so there’s no food left on the counters but they can still leave the house for fun activities. 

Gender fatigue and the continuing gap

People are sick of talking about gender, even though gender equality is far from solved. Donna is frustrated by that resistance in her own work.

“My biggest challenge is hearing people ask, ‘why do we need to focus on this now? Why are we singling women out? Why is it all about the mothers?’.”

“The business is asking, what about the dads, and that grinds my gears! It’s not time for them right now. The problem is that women are leaving and we don’t have any women in these leadership roles long term.”

“We’re still not valuing mothers. They’re not seen, they’re not acknowledged, they’re not understood.”

Retaining women in your workforce

In anonymous exit interviews of senior female leaders, one bank discovered that the women were leaving because the opportunities were better else where. Women don’t lose their ambition once they have children, but they want meaningful careers without having to sacrifice any time with their children.

If you’re interested in understanding why women are leaving your organisation, or not progressing to leadership level, or you’re wanting to attract more women, I can help.

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