Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa Buckingham OBE and Senior Advisor on Diversity for the Institute of Directors.
We discussed my insights and knowledge regarding the issues around pregnancy in the workplace, return-ships and the overall impact the pregnancy journey and new motherhood has on the pipeline of female talent, some of which Lisa included in her Autumn article in the IoD Big Picture.
Buckingham is well known for her work in improving the standing of women in business and for encouraging companies to build their pipelines of senior executive women in order to meet government targets that 25 per cent of board posts should be female by 2015.
At a seminar held recently by CityMothers ‘Accelerating progress: 22% and up’, and run by the 30% Club; two of 30% Club’s Steering Committee members, Baroness Mary Goudie, Labour Peer, and Katushka Giltsoff, The Miles Partnership delivered the current progress and results.
On the face of it, it looks to be very positive – currently 22.8% up from 12.6% – but is this number enough to make a real difference to the balance of power and are these women in positions where they can make a real difference and are truly valued and listened to by those around them and respected by their colleagues above and below?
I am interested to know how many of these women are mothers and how supported they felt during this time of transition and as their career progressed? Did it add to their desire to succeed a higher level? Did they have to work harder as a mother to get to their current position than their male counterparts who are fathers? Did it have no bearing whatsoever?
Not all women have the desire or aptitude to be on the board of their company – neither do all men. But I speak to a great many who do. Or who certainly want their career to maintain an upward trajectory after they have children and be able to realise their potential, have their voices heard and their insights and experience recognised.
Including that of being a mother.
Not within the first 6 weeks or even 6 months of their new baby arriving but during the next phase of their life, where their life skills grow exponentially. Add to this their professional knowledge to date and you have a veritable power house, capable of staying calm under immense pressure, not sweating the small stuff and able to multi-task like a ninja.
Work becomes far more personal. Working mothers are choosing to spend their precious time away from their child – so it needs to matter and make a difference, not just be something to pay the bills. A little person can give you a far bigger perspective on the world at large.
I have spoken to many of my clients who lament their change of role and status after they have children, conceding a duller and less challenging position in order to spend time with their new baby and create a family.
They adore being a mother and accept they have some physical limitations – not able to travel for long periods or make a 7.30am office meeting – but feel sidelined and undermined by their male and female colleagues who have not yet made this transition or simply don’t “get” the journey they have been on and display a visible lack of understanding and empathy around the process because they are not willing or able to work a 14 hour day. Personally I don’t think this should be the norm for anyone.
When new mothers return to the workplace very few get a warm welcome and high five. Many colleagues are completely unaware or respectful of the changes and depth of skills they now possess.
But mothers are human. Not superhuman. And as a new CityFather‘s post highlighted recently, men need and want to take their foot off the pedal sometimes too because our personal lives and wellbeing matter.
From the daily conversations I have, I believe there is still a deeply ingrained attitude that is prevalent in many companies that it’s one or the other and once a women steps up to have a family she is effectively stepping out of her career. When a new mother recently asked her husband is he was willing to take 6 months off whilst she rebuilt her career he was horrified and said it would be “career suicide” until he realised that in order for them to have their slightly unplanned child that was the route she had taken without question.
A recent Study from the Federal Bank of St. Louis and highlighted in the Washington Post Women with more children are more productive at work discredits this theory but my recent trip to New York and conversations with mothers working on Wall Street and in large law firms highlight that the road is less than easy – or fair.
Life is incredibly harsh for pregnant women and new mothers and it seems they need backbones of steel and hearts of stone to survive in the world of Corporate America. Speaking to a well known and highly respected New York based therapist whose practice is choc-a-block full with women who have “hit a wall” and exhausted “trying to do it all” it seems women are paying a huge price for desiring to reach their potential and raise a family.
In our own UK Parliament there are currently only 80 mothers in the House of Commons, 12.3% of all MPs. That doesn’t seem like a fair representation of our society to me or a sign of encouragement to younger women that a career in politics will be child-friendly.
Women such as Helena Morrissey, Founder of the 30% Club and Nicola Horlick both mothers of large families could be viewed as testament to a career + children = success but in my 10+ year career supporting women during this time of transition I am still seeing many high flying execs no longer moving up and admitting they accept this is “just the way it is” and it is “too hard to fight”.
The women I speak to are hesitant to admit their loss of ambition as they love their family and feel they have achieved “more than their mothers” but as my conversation with Lisa Buckingham touched on, as a mother herself, she is now seeing her daughter entering the workplace and coming into a world that doesn’t feel hugely different to when she was entering some 25/30 years ago.
At a recent event where I met a number of 20-something women working in finance and private equity there was a general consensus that there is perhaps 10-15 years to have a career but then it is game over at the time they decide to be a mother. I was shocked at the matter of factness with which this information was delivered but the underlying frustration was palpable as they discussed their journey to reaching their current position. Getting better grades and showing as much, if not more natural aptitude for their area of expertise as their male counterparts, yet accepting that their career had a far shorter life span was something they were mostly just accepting of.
New mothers are vulnerable, as are women during the pregnancy journey. During this time women are not designed to be fighters and outspoken. To battle with their colleagues and managers for a position and level they have already secured. We may have policies and procedures in place but I am told time and time again by new mothers that their journey back to work with a new baby is not good.
New mothers require and deserve support. Professionals need to facilitate greater awareness for managers, colleagues and the board members who all play a part in this transition process to allow a more collaborative and cohesive outcome. And above all, an open and honest commitment to change and embracing both feminine and masculine values in business has to happen in our society.
A new mother’s emotions are often raw and their level of sensitivity is heightened – deliberately by Mother Nature to pick up on the subtle nuances of their newborn – but this also means they pick up on the less than subtle comments and behaviours of their colleagues and find the masculine ways we often “do” business too aggressive and no longer appealing.
An empowered mother, strong in body, mind and spirit is a powerful women capable of achieving great things. Giving women support and understanding during this huge time of growth can pay dividends and avoid the real loss we are currently experiencing.
The cost to industry of women who do not return to work or who return at a lesser capacity than they are really capable of and who later leave through boredom and more appreciation at home must be running into the billions. I have recently been privy to one company’s internal statistics where if the numbers were showing the loss of their male executives at the same rate they admitted they would have taken action years ago.
If you are a company investing in supportive and attractive maternity packages and maternity coaching – bravo, but does this really go deep enough?
If you hand on heart know there is work to be done, know that when you speak to your female executives and really hear their response without bias (and they feel safe enough to be genuinely truthful) that more could be achieved I urge you to genuinely invest in these future leaders, with money, with time and with real commitment to change.
If we really want more women on the boards of UK PLC, a more balanced and diverse culture and market place we must start our support sooner, take its reach wider and see motherhood in all its shining glory.
I offer a Maternity Mastermind for Corporations and Pregnancy Power Circles for Individuals and Entrepreneurs. Designed to be industry firsts and to shape the way we respect pregnancy and new motherhood in the workplace and encourage more feminine values in our business overall.
Both provide a far deeper, yet more flexible level of ongoing support (each program is a minimum of 6 months with weekly and even daily interactions with options for personal or professional continued support) for both Corporate employees and Entrepreneurs. I have a wealth of experience and understanding in this area and build a level of intimacy, trust and connection with my clients which allows them to truly connect with their innermost feelings and fully own their evolving self.
In June of this year I founded Bumps and the Boardroom as a platform to connect with women in industry who could share their valuable and different perspectives around the pregnancy journey, transition to motherhood and return to the workplace.
A second event is happening in Spring 2015. Add your voice to the conversation or connect with me on Twitter