Unsupportive workplaces set you up to fail

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

Danielle* has two kids age 2 and 4.5, and she’s struggling with her part time role – but she’s also clear that she thinks work is the problem, not her ability to juggle things!

Losing everything

When her second child was born, Danielle developed post-natal anxiety and depression. Her mother moved in to support her.

“I thought I was never going to leave the house again. I lost everything, including my connection to my kids.”

She got the support required, including medication, found her connection back to her kids, and with professional advice, came off medication months before she started her current role. In a very short space of time, she started a new big job, sold a house, bought a house, and;

“I hit the deck. I took myself to emergency. I was one week into my new job.”

She decided to be transparent about her mental health challenges, because for her, this was new.

“I’d never had a day off or a mental health day in my life. I was very unwell. I decided to be transparent. I rang my old boss for advice. [I felt like saying], ‘I want you to tell them I’ve accrued 60 days sick leave and I’ve never had a day off!” Danielle took two weeks off to rebalance herself, and then got back to work. But it hasn’t been easy…

When the issue is management

“My challenge is not the balance. I’m in a really tricky place I’ve never been before with work. There’s a disconnect – I think it’s mainly my leader.”

Danielle joined to drive forward the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) agenda. Her company says DEI is a top priority, the CEO is committed and saying all the right things, and they were really eager for Danielle to join.

“I thought, ‘That’s exciting!’. Coming from a professional services firm where 85% of partners are white middle-aged men where there was no level of leadership commitment.”

But the business commitment hasn’t been what Danielle expected. They’ve removed resource allocation, she’s overworked and set up to fail.

No one is listening!

Danielle has solutions – but no one is listening to her.

“I’ve tried other things. Last quarter there were so many offsites and travel, I worked out I had 11 working days available for delivery.”

Taking that to her boss with her suggested priorities for those few working days backfired.

She also tried redesigning her role to focus on key DEI priorities and remove everything else. But that’s not getting traction either, and the first response to her recommendation was that she would have to reduce her pay if she was removing anything from her job description.

“My boss keeps saying she believes it can work and it’s my approach that is the problem.”

Weaponising mental health

Despite all the challenges about her job design and team culture, Danielle has been hard at work.

“Since the day I came back I haven’t had another health concern. I’ve been the same operator I have been in all my life, for the 15 years of working where I’ve had incredible success.”

But her work might not see it quite the same. After one discussion about job design and potentially exiting the business if a middle ground can’t be found, Danielle received a call from her boss saying they were concerned about her mental health.

“I said this isn’t about my mental health, it’s about the job design not setting me up for success.”

Danielle thinks she might be dealing with some bias around her capabilities because she disclosed her mental health challenges early on.

“Should I find myself in the same position down the track, I will never disclose mental health issues in the workplace again”, which is a disappointing reflection for her given her role in leading equity and inclusion. 

Weaponising family 

It’s bad enough that disclosing her mental health challenges is impacting Danielle’s reputation, but she’s also dealing with gendered expectations about family and care.

Danielle took another senior colleague through her proposed job design.

“She said, ‘You’re really in the hardest phase with small kids’.”

Danielle made it clear.

“This isn’t about my personal life. It’s about trying to design a role so we can accelerate change in the program but one that is also realistic.”

“They’ve both put it back on me in different ways. I love the company, I’ve made so many good connections. I genuinely think it’s such an exceptional, organisationally aligned program of work. I think they’re crazy for not listening to me!”

Greedy jobs and family

Claudia Goldin won a Nobel prize for her work on women’s careers and families. She cites one big challenge to women who want both – greedy careers. Those are jobs that require longer hours, travel, unpredictability. And Danielle is experiencing exactly that challenge.

“I’m senior, and you get paid a certain remuneration to deliver. So often, something arrives in my calendar for travel, or an offsite, with little notice. I’m constantly trying to find nannies to pay on my days off, because there’s not enough notice [for daycare]. I feel like I’ve become a bit of an agitator, and I don’t want to be that – it is not who I am.”

“There’s also the delivery. Friday I’m not working, but there’s this constant pressure. It’s just expected that I get it done.”

Danielle is also finding it really challenging being the only part time worker in her team.

“They’re so used to operating in their full-time rhythm and delivering at that pace, there’s no consideration for part timers. I feel uncomfortable putting on my out of office on my days off.”

Danielle resonated strongly with April’s story from Beyond the 9 to 5. April said, “I thought, ‘I’ve got to make this work, something’s wrong with me that I can’t make this work,’ instead of looking at what was being asked of me.”

Women want both

“Like any mum I question, should I be with my kids, am I going to regret this?”

But quickly Danielle shares that she doesn’t think full-time mum-ing is for her.

“I love my career. I’m a better person when I do have that balance. I’ve just never been in the position where I feel like I can’t have supported conversations around that with my boss.”

“In the choice between family and work, I want both!”

*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.

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

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.