Career women face the difficulty of balancing a successful career and having a family. For the many, it’s meant not having a career at all and instead being a stay-at-home mom. But, today, there’s more of a push for women who are mothers to become high-profile business figures.
It still comes at a cost, though.
Whereas it’s quite the norm for a man to continue on his path up the career ladder once he has become a parent, it’s far more difficult for women. Ridiculous as it might seem, some people still think that women are less agile thinkers after pregnancy, or that their focus is less on the office than on the kids at home.
Yet, for many, the return to work provides intellectual stimulation that’s been missing, and they are often more committed than ever to their careers. Since having a baby and bringing up children is such a normal event for an adult human being, it’s strange that the workplace seems to treat it as an oddity.
Parenthood an anomaly
“It’s clear to me that society should be normalising the idea that we have families and family responsibilities,” argues Aisha Pandor, CEO of SweepSouth. “After all, each one of us is the product of parents and of growing up in a family, yet the workplace tends to view motherhood and parenthood as some sort of anomaly.”
Most office environments are not particularly welcoming towards women who return from maternity leave, and women often experience being treated in a less serious way than beforehand.
“Greater flexibility regarding how the workday is structured goes a long way towards allowing a new mother to cope with the return to work” says Tanja Lategan, former CEO of Primedia Digital, and now CEO of Enlight Strategic, a digital transformation consultancy.
Pandor elaborates: "A flexible view of this means that the employer focuses on output and productivity, rather than on seeing an employee sitting at her desk from 9 to 5 every day."
"This may involve allowing for something like earlier start and finish times, or accepting that someone may not be able to work at 8am but may well be available to finish off a task at home after 10pm, for instance,” she says.
More than a half-day
This approach would also allow for employers to offer more than just a half-day work option to returning employees.
The problem with this arrangement, while it accommodates the new mother’s personal needs, is that it neglects to support her career ambitions, and also means that one is forced to earn a lower salary, and frequently left out when promotion opportunities arise.
Lategan explains, "Not all women want to deprioritise their careers or can afford to take the pay cut if they are the main breadwinner in the family. It’s really about being prepared to see a work-day in a slightly different way - it doesn’t have to be eight consecutive hours at a desk inside an office."
"A trustworthy employee committed to the company’s vision can achieve the same - or better quality - output whatever time of the day and wherever they choose to work," she says.
In today’s digital world, the opportunity for greater flexibility is obvious: access to a laptop and Wi-Fi supplants the physical office.
Pandor refers to the need to allow certain employees to have work-from-home days, as well as to structure things so that employees can complete some of their work tasks from home, rather than in the office, during a particular portion of the day. A more flexible approach by an employer may result in even greater loyalty from a quality staff member.
As Judiet Barnes, the CEO of Kruger Shalati: Train on a Bridge, experienced years ago, "The company I was working for gave me the opportunity to work on freelance terms which meant basing my office from home and only coming in three times a week for meetings, for a couple of hours each day. This meant I could continue to breastfeed my daughter, spend more time with her and not miss out on anything."
A different approach
An employer who wants to include more women in management and executive positions, realising that women bring a different approach and particular skills, should also be more accommodating in the workplace itself. An example of this is to provide a small private space for new mothers who need to express breast-milk.
Pandor has experienced how uncomfortable it can be for a new mother to do this in the usual office environment, and points out how a small gesture like this can make an employer far more attractive to female employees.
Personalised working schedules
A large part of having a more adaptable approach to employees and their working hours is the need for the particular employee and their counterparts to be aware of the different structure in place for a specific person.
"A new mother should ideally develop a schedule that can be shared with colleagues and perhaps even clients," Lategan suggests. This involves things like making sure that others know when one will be online from home and can be contacted, and which days and times one plans to be in office for face-time.
"I usually encourage all my employees to develop their own working schedules to make up their 8 hour days. This exercise helps to keep individuals organised and the information does wonders to optimise team productivity in a flexible working environment."
A completely normal event
Ultimately, business needs to acknowledge that becoming a parent is a completely normal event in any society.
As Barnes concludes, “If we provide workplaces which look after the wellbeing of parents and their families, we will have more loyal employees and create a culture of caring more for one another.”
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