Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Let’s Stop the Lies and Get Honest about Returning to Work

So as you may have read recently (if not go ahead)  I shared some examples of the types of pompous, ridiculous and sheer discriminatory statements women have experienced recently on both sides of the Tasman.

But at the risk of that post sounding like the wails of an unreasonable woman the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission has released its Headline Prevalence Data for its National Review, entitled Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review.  And the news is unfortunately as I had already previously described. I should have probably stopped at reading the report but I went and read a few submissions as well which wasn’t the ideal way to change my mood on an otherwise good day in the office.

In the Mothers’ Survey that was carried out they found:

(a) Prevalence of discrimination

Discrimination in the workplace against mothers is pervasive.

  • One in two (49%) mothers[i] reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work.[ii]
  • Discrimination occurs at all stages:
  1. A quarter (27%) of mothers reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace during pregnancy.
  2. Almost a third (32%) of mothers reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace when they requested or took parental leave.
  3. More than a third (35%) reported experiencing discrimination when returning to work after parental leave (34% related to family responsibilities and 8% related to breast-feeding or expressing milk).

Figure 1 - Prevalence of discrimination in the workplace during pregnancy, parental leave and return to work

[i] ‘Mothers’ refers to women aged 18-49 years and in the workforce as an employee at some time during their pregnancy (or while adopting a child) with a child of approximately 2 years of age.

[ii] An overall incidence of the level of workforce discrimination was calculated as the total number of individuals who were treated unfairly or disadvantaged at least once either during their pregnancy, when requesting or on parental leave, or when returning to work following parental leave.


Of the 36% of mothers that reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace when returning to work after parental leave:

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) reported receiving negative attitudes or comments from colleagues or managers/employers.
  • Half (50%) reported discrimination when they requested flexible work arrangements.
  • Two in five (38%) reported discrimination related to pay, conditions and duties.

And so this report goes on…I am holding on to my indignation but now I am offering of you some empirical evidence to support it. It doesn’t end there, the study has confirmed that fathers that elect to take parental leave have also been discriminated against.

So after two lengthy discussions today with women I respect (one with no children and the other with three preschool aged) I have decided to make a commitment to speak up about what I am experiencing or have experienced on my own journey. Why? Because sugar-coating what goes on has done nothing but continue this myth about egalitarian workplaces, meritocracy and supports the continued discrimination of families in the workplace (I use that term intentionally as the whole family is impacted). We owe it to our children to expose this discrimination for what it is. If this were an abusive relationship (which it is) you are enabling the abuse to continue and protecting the abuser from ever being made accountable.

And a special request on my part for the fellas – if you are the lucky party who has been able to return to work following the arrival of a child,  continue on your career path unobstructed but your partner hasn’t then I beg you to speak up. How long would you condone the negative impact on your household earning potential or deny your partner’s right to career progression? Your silence is as much to blame as ours.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

“Enjoy Your Four Day Weekend” and other stupid things people say to working mothers*

I really didn’t consult widely enough, or press people for honest answers about returning to the paid workforce. Nothing really prepared me for the stupid things people might say or assume when a woman returns to her place of work. Even in a flexible working environment there seems to be no shortage of infuriating remarks, presumptions and useless advice.  I wanted to find out whether there was a difference in attitudes on either side of the Tasman.  I remember arriving in Australia some years ago and was sickened by the treatment of a pregnant colleague  - it was as if her brain had checked out the moment she announced her pregnancy. I hadn’t experienced this sort of negativity towards kiwi colleagues in the same situation. Or maybe I hadn’t participated in such prehistoric behaviours and didn’t associate with people that did? This was at a leading global corporation that bathed itself in Towers-Perrin assessments. For the record she survived it, returned and was promoted after a lengthy tenure. Would she have been promoted sooner had she not had another child? Speculative!  She was likely more prepared for it (2nd child) than I was being new to the Australian working culture. The fact she had to be was what disturbed me.  Things have changed in the last 8 years right? If only.

I surveyed mothers on both sides of Tasman recently to see whether my own return to work experiences bore any resemblance to what other working parents, predominantly women had.  Unfortunately stupidity is universal, but I think we knew that. 

If you’re about to “welcome” a colleague back to your team/organisation (and you know, really try “welcoming” them back for a start) here are few things that are likely worth avoiding saying to them.  These (actual) statements by the way were all made in the last five years (maximum) – not the 80s,90s or 00s. Not all to me! But yes some were.

“Enjoy your four-day weekend/days off” etc – a statement that spews from the mouths of so many. No I have a weekend like anyone else, it is also when I have a spouse to help out so the weekend really is my only “break” (hands free) time. If I asked people if they were prepared to take a 40% pay cut in order to have a “four day weekend” as well it is normally met with pained or insulted looks. I don’t think I could get any of them to volunteer to look after a sick toddler, juggle doctors appointments, family commitments, laundry etc. I think I have been out for coffee twice in 3 1/2 months if that.

“Of course your job has changed, you’re part time”  - this is the utterance of a party threatened by your return.

“Are you struggling to work ‘normal’ hours?”  Apparently greater scrutiny of flexible work arrangements are reserved for working parents. Some would argue this but it has been my own personal experience despite not drastically altering my own start/finish times (by 60 mins!)

But wait there’s more…

By now you should be getting the picture, if not – read on:

"Why do you want a career? You're a mum."

'What's the point in having children if you are just going to dump them and go back to work'?

{Trigger Warning} “My manager says I should "adopt" a granny from the neighbourhood to watch my son when he's too sick for daycare. Because her child was "like an aborigine, with pus coming out of everywhere" and she still managed to go to work.”

“My 60 something female boss who'd had 3 children of her own told me one day that my son wasn't too sick to go to daycare - I told her that was my call as HIS mum, not hers!”

“My former manager (male, 60's) told me that I should stay at home, because it's just too much to look after children, work, and do all the cooking and cleaning. I had to slowly explain to him that it is in fact possible for fathers to contribute as well. He warned me that his wife became depressed after she went back to work because there was just too much for her. I suspect though, her idiot, sexist husband was the greatest contributing factor”

“That my hesitation attending an executive retreat without my 8 month old baby and my reluctance to put her on formula to do so showed my lack of commitment to the team.”

“"Part timers do a crap job at work and do a crap job with their kids". Nice. Fed into every fear I had as a part time worker and mum.”

“Ohh, your career comes before your child. Yeah, we talked about what was the most important, that's why my wife stays home with our kids.”

“can you not afford to stay home with him?"

“From my boss: "You should be at home with XXXX. Do you think he likes being shoved into daycare?"”

“I had a lovely well meaning young woman ask how my holiday was”

"Oh I thought you came back because you don't enjoy being a mum!"

“You were wasted at home doing unskilled work"

“we really shouldn't be hiring woman in their 30's with no kids cause this is what happens"

"Don't you think daycare is like putting you kid in a daytime orphanage?"

“"oh, did you get bored of watching tv all day? Did you get bored of your baby? Can't you afford daycare? Is that why you have to work?"

Hey I get this isn’t everyone’s  experience, but this isn’t a post about the glossy exceptions or award winning organisations. This is about the numerous women I consulted who have for their entire working careers managed to be respected members of the workforce who by virtue of becoming mothers, raising children, a choice their spouses/partners no doubt actively participated in, are still subjected to this shit.  Female entrepreneurs are sometimes borne of necessity.

Feel free to add some of your own experiences please! I fear that being polite or even politic about these things hasn’t helped the advancement of women. Disagreeing is ok too but let’s have the conversation ok?

**This post contains more expletives than usual but some people just evoke that in me really.