Women at work, beyond the 9 to 5: The untold realities of working mothers’ lives.
Edwina* has one 20 month old boy, and works a nine day fortnight, taking every second Friday off We talked about the difficult choices of working motherhood, the ‘manager lottery’, and how individuals and workplaces can better support working mothers.
Pregnancy doesn’t always mean being sidelined
So many women in Beyond the 9 to 5 have shared stories of being sidelined when they returned to work after having a baby. But for Edwina, it was the opposite. She was invited to apply for a promotion as she went off onto parental leave and was interviewed four days post-partum!
Edwina got the job, started back full time when her son was four months old, and relocated interstate a month later for the job.
“I definitely don’t feel like I was sidelined, if anything I feel that I was pushed forward.”
“I was also given a company award when I was on maternity leave. I feel like it was probably a little bit because I was on mat leave, there was a desire to recognise me.”
She says a key to her success was her managers along the path.
Winning at manager lottery
“I think it’s manger lottery. I’m fortunate to have had good mangers that have supported me. Those that have negative experience, sometimes it comes down to the person that they’re working for.”
Edwina is spot on when she talks about this lottery.
Research by CustomInsight into the drivers of engagement and disengagement clearly showed that the biggest impact on disengagement is having a bad 1-up manager. So poor direct management leads to increased disengagement. And poor direct management is indicated through things like a lack of respect, autonomy and personal expression.
Organisations benefit from increased impact of diversity measures when they focus on their people managers. And individuals such as Edwina benefit when they have managers who support working parents and see that motherhood doesn’t blunt our ‘competitive instincts’.
The juggle of working motherhood
Edwina’s husband works away four nights a week, which means childcare drop offs and pickups fall to her. Managing all the things with a demanding role is a challenge.
“There is still an expectation for being on calls outside of hours, and the juggle and balance with working in a global company. I know I haven’t made it easy for myself by taking a promotion and continuing to grow my career while having a young child.”
“But it’s a sacrifice I’ve chosen to make because I want both. With that comes the challenge! It’s a juggle, and sometimes the juggle doesn’t go to plan, or you feel like you’re doing both really badly.”
This desire for both has been mentioned before in Beyond the 9 to 5, and reflects Edwina’s competing devotions – an idea that originated at Harvard University reflecting women’s desire to retain fulfilling careers while being active care givers.
It’s not an issue that arises directly because of the workplace, but it’s something all ambitious mothers need to deal with, and company policy can help.
Workplace support for parents
There’s no simple solution, but we do know that:
- Strong flexible working policies,
- An inclusive and anti-discriminatory culture, and
- Representative leadership
all contribute to creating working environments that enable working mothers to thrive and succeed. Edwina raised the point that workplaces still focus on supporting mothers, rather than parents.
“I’m supported in picking my child up from daycare, but I think if I was a man I wouldn’t be. I think if I was a man applying for a nine-day fortnight it wouldn’t be approved.”a day.”
And in the home, a shared care model where fathers are active parents and involved with family life makes a huge difference – so workplaces need to support fathers being active in the home as well.
“If men don’t take more of an active role and home and link that into the workplace, then women are never going to be able to have an equal footing because they’re still going to have to carry that load.”
The mental load… again
“I’m still the one organising the groceries, paying the bills, doing the planning. He doesn’t think that I give up control enough. My standard is really high, but I that’s how I’ve been able to manage work and home life.”
But here we fall into the fallacy of maternal gatekeeping. Because even partners who genuinely want to be involved often still see it as ‘helping’ – which means it’s the mother’s job. And as Edwina points out,
“You’ve got a human that you’ve got to care for, that needs 100%. A small baby can’t survive at 60%. I can’t forget to buy the formula, I can’t forget to book him in for his 18 months needles. Their survival relies on those things.”
And when she raises it with her husband, he agrees but wants Edwina to delegate more.
“But that’s the point of the mental load. He wants me to tell him what to do, but my view is that I’m still using space in my brain to tell you that you need to pick up the dry cleaning or mop the floor. It’s still my load.”
Now, she says she sees they are different people who do things differently. But it’s a societal issue that mothers are the ones who are judged on things like dirty clothes, and daycare still always calls the mother first.
“These things aren’t necessarily the workforce’s problem, but they translate into the workplace, because you’re trying to deal with this at home.”
What do you wish more people understood about the experience of being a working mother?
“That it doesn’t stop at 5 in the afternoon or start at 8. I didn’t know this. When I think about my work life before a baby, I didn’t appreciate any of the young families in my team and what they were actually doing. I probably put unnecessary pressure on them because I didn’t realise.”
Before you have children it’s difficult to understand the increased pressures and challenge. And because younger women don’t want to see themselves on an inevitable slide into being demoted at work, they can resist the idea that motherhood creates a structural barrier. As Amy Taylor-Kabbaz shares, “more women will run into the maternal wall before they hit the glass ceiling.”
Edwina gave an example of a competitive relationship she had at work when Edwina was 20 and the other woman was in her late 30’s with a brand new baby.
“When you’re younger you just don’t realise what the future could hold. You don’t realise that journey that women are going on and what it means to become a mum in terms of your sense of identify and what you value.”
“I wish I could make myself realise that then, because I would have been more supportive rather than probably hindering what was already a difficult time for her.”
Supporting other women
In the past, Edwina made the mistake on focusing solely on her role and progression, and now she makes a deliberate effort to help other women.
“Sometimes women just need support; to know there’s someone else in the same boat and they’re not suffering alone. You’re not the only one that thinks you’re not a good mother.”
Some of the steps Edwina takes to support women are:
- Recruiting women with young families, ensuring they get opportunities
- Making a conscious effort to ask about children, families and life outside of work
- Visible leadership around juggling caring with work (this is one of the key things women want from a workplace).
- Being an example for balancing life and voicing her challenges
- Reminding others that what you see on the outside isn’t the whole picture
“You only see what you see. I am human, I am vulnerable, I cry sometimes.”
Structural support for structural issues
Edwina makes a point of leaving loudly, so other parents feel empowered to be active carers and do daycare pick up and says that organisations need to put more structural support in place for families.
- It should be ok to decline or reschedule a meeting and request a summary of action points, so mainly-mothers doing the pick up aren’t left out of workplace activities.
- Policy needs to be supported by consistent management application.
- People going on parental leave need to be supported and kept connected to the workplace.
- Representation at senior levels enables parents to be properly represented.
- Training for line managers around matrescence and the transition to motherhood.
“Most of our leadership team members have stay-at-home-wives. I don’t think we have any LT members that are doing the two-parent juggle. There’s very few men at that table that are actually carrying any of the motherload.”
“These are society issues, but a large organisation has the opportunity to make a lasting impact on people’s lives. If you want to be the market leader, you need to do these things.”
You don’t have to work it all out alone
When we don’t see the structural barriers around us, we end up thinking that the things we struggle with are our own personal deficiency.
If you have been feeling that you just need to work harder or try harder, as though you’re not doing enough and that’s why you’re not where you want to be, get in touch, I can help.
*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!