Ok, so it might not be said aloud, but frighteningly it’s often thought and communicated through actions, body language and attitudes.
McKinsey’s Women in Workplace data from 2019 shows that historically, mothers have shown higher levels of ambition at work than women overall. But this doesn’t square with the attitudes that prevail – that women are less ambitious and less able to work hard than those who don’t have children. So where do these attitudes come from?
Presenteeism is one culprit. If you’re not there, you’re not working. Right? And since the pandemic, that’s been replaced with – if you’re not showing as green on Teams and you’re not in a meeting, you’re not working. For so long the correlation between working hard and delivering value has been about being seen to be there. But what about the stuff we don’t see? According to the same research by McKinsey, women are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend an additional three or more hours per day on housework and childcare. So not only do they work hard at work, they work hard at home.
Assumptions and bias are also culprits. The assumption that women are no longer ambitious and the belief or bias that they can’t or won’t work as hard as their child-free counterparts. Wrong again. Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis found that over the course of a 30-year career, mothers outperformed women without children throughout, and especially those with two children, who were found to be the most productive of all.
As a coach, the number of stories I hear where women have encountered subtle attitudes that undermine them or cut them out completely is alarming. Perhaps more alarming are the numbers of women who have taken on these attitudes as truth and now believe, to a greater or lesser extent, that they can’t be as ambitious as they were before having children or at the very least they are consumed with guilt if they admit that they are.
Or perhaps they feel guilty about leaving in a timely manner to collect their children and therefore accept that the promotion needs to go to someone who can be more ‘available’. Or they know that they are focused and productive when they are at work but feel the need to ‘prove’ themselves by working even harder than their colleagues who don’t have children in order to show that they still add value.
These extraordinary women who have carried a child for 9 months, survived varying lengths and experiences of labour, cared for their newborn child and come back to work, only to feel guilty, judged and undervalued when they get there deserve a whole lot more. Happily, there are an increasing number of organisations who are recognising the need to change this experience for women, and that often starts with changing attitudes.
Make it part of the conversation. Find out from the women who have come back to work what they needed and how it could have been different. Talk to them about the attitudes that they experienced and explore options for training around bias and specifically around this topic. That includes exploring some of their own biases and beliefs – it’s amazing how many women need to let go of the things that might be holding them back themselves.
Examine job profiles and explore how to make them more accessible to working mums who may be part-time. Part-time mums are a hugely undervalued resource – women who understand the pressure of time and juggling commitments and who make every moment count. Now why wouldn’t you want them in your senior positions?
Be proactive about having career conversations with your returning women. What do they want? What are their career ambitions? How can you support them? Giving this strong message will go a long way to removing women’s belief that it’s no longer OK to be ambitious.
Be interested in their childcare set-up and potential challenges and talk in advance about what support they need when this inevitably goes wrong. Make it ok for them to talk about juggling rather than creating an environment where women feel the need to hide the juggling.
Give women support through mentoring or coaching to allow them the space to work through their challenges and validate their feelings. Imagine a world where women could return to work without facing all of the negative attitudes and undercurrents and where they could focus on rediscovering who they are at work and how they can bring their best selves to work. I definitely want to be part of that conversation!
As working mothers continue to suffer the negative mental impact of the pandemic and consider whether stepping down or stepping away from work is the better option for them (McKinsey 2021), now is the time to rethink how we look after our returning mums. If you’d like to explore how your organisation can support your returning women more effectively, I’d welcome a conversation with you. Please do get in touch.
Oh, and never underestimate a woman who has been in labour for 36 hours. You won’t find anyone more resilient and more able to dig deep when they need to!