This International Women’s Day is an opportunistic time for me to reflect on how growing a family and my career ambitions can coexist. Parenting and working are becoming increasingly tied together as both women and men try to balance the demands of work with those of growing a family. Workplaces are beginning to engage more actively in providing support to parents through financial, cultural, technology and other changes to offer more flexibility, retain corporate knowledge and help support their staff to balance the 24/7 demands of parenting against the needs of the business.
While some companies do this exceptionally well and offer the same entitlements to all employees regardless of gender, many organisations are still struggling to take the step from 12 months unpaid leave to a more inclusive and supportive offering. This particularly requires organisations to invest in breaking down the stigma surrounding parental leave, part-time employees with childcaring responsibilities, and building a culture which values employees based on their quality output – not their presenteeism.
Being born in the 90s into a stable, caring, middle-class family means that I am privileged beyond belief. I have not experienced the same struggle many women who have worked through previous decades faced. I haven’t been asked to grab coffee orders if I was the only woman in the room or asked to take minutes. However, gender prejudice isn’t always this blatant. It can be subtle, almost like gaslighting.
To understand how prejudice manifests, we need to understand what it is: Prejudice is not always a conscious or self-aware action. Prejudice can be an unconscious bias, an unconscious thought, action or deeply ingrained belief we as humans can find challenging to identify in ourselves. Often prejudices are based on values we adopted or were exposed to as children; they can be difficult to change or adapt. However, it is our responsibility to remove our prejudice and work on changing our unconscious thoughts and reactions to improve the culture of our communities.
In conversations I’ve had with women, and through my own experiences, in the workplace, the comments are always consistent. Women are often made to feel (whether subconsciously or consciously) like lesser team members because of their gender. It can be something as simple as being called “bitchy”, “moody”, “bossy” or “political” – traits which are very rarely attributed to men and are generally used to degrade or disempower women expressing their opinions or views. I’ve also known people to attribute differences between the genders to someone’s monthly cycle or menopause, making them crazy, weak or vulnerable. And then there’s the pregnancy/ maternal prejudice. We’ve all seen it, heard it and been disgusted by it.
I’ve heard statements such as “women between the ages of 25 – 35 will take a whole year out of their work to go on a junket to have a child.” “They rock the stability of the workplace and make their colleagues carry an additional load when they come back part-time.”
I’ve also been asked questions, at times by senior leaders, about when I plan on having children, how many I’ll have and if I’ll be a stay at home mum or come back to work. For all they know, I could have been suffering from my third miscarriage, going through my fifth round of failed IVF or having challenging discussions with my partner about how I don’t want children at all - all while being pressured by my employer to divulge deeply personal and sensitive information.
Can you imagine the emotional turmoil and pain this kind of questioning can inflict? To top this off, I rarely have, if ever, known my male colleagues to be asked the same question by senior leaders. This kind of prejudicial behaviour is consistent with ongoing gender imbalance in companies, especially when it comes to building a culture of inclusivity and diversity of leadership. The unconscious bias that faces women of childbearing ages is real, it’s happening right now, and the only way it will change is if those who either consciously or unconsciously display prejudice change their behaviour.
I hope this year’s International Women’s Day theme #EachforEqual reminds us that a community who disadvantages or excludes any minority group (whether the discrimination is based on gender, sexual orientation, religious preferences, ethnicity or family background) limits their ability to succeed as a whole. We need people from all walks of life with diverse and varying life experiences to succeed as Australia’s greatest design firm.
To help break down this prejudice, we need to begin changing the dialogue and stop reflecting on the negatives. There are so many great skills being a parent arms you with – it’s time we started to acknowledge these and see their value within the workplace!
Parenting requires flexibility - it requires employers and teams to adopt a more ‘flexible’ working structure which includes investing in documenting project progress to support handovers at any time (this support is also useful in the case of staff resigning or retiring). Flexibility in working hours may also support staff transitioning to retirement, staff with special needs or requirements and promotes a positive culture, health and wellbeing. Think about all the dads who don’t do school drop-offs or pick-ups because they feel immense pressure to start work on time and finish well after 5:00 pm, why can’t we accommodate flexibility across the board and across both genders?
Parenting helps to create leadership space – maternity and paternity leave creates space for junior staff to step up and learn the skills their leaders should have been imparting. It allows others within the organisation to build better client relationships and distribute key client relationships across multiple staff.
Parents at work need access to safer spaces – women who are returning to work will often need a safe, secure and quiet place to express (or breastfeed if someone is bringing their baby in to see them). This could be a first aid room, spacious meeting room which can be locked and is private (no clear glass) and could be ‘borrowed’ or shared with another tenant in the building if it’s unavailable as a part of the normal tenancy. Creating this space also gives staff members who have prayer or religious conditions, require a personal space to take medication or rest access to fulfil their needs.
Parents develop new skills, really quickly! Women and men who parent have to rapidly learn a new set of skills including time management, negotiation, conflict resolution, teaching and patience by the bucket load along with revisiting their emotional intelligence! All these skills are transferrable into project teams and are really valuable leadership skills. We should maximise the use of these skills by ensuring that women and men are equally employed on project teams, in leadership and across all levels of the company.
As a design firm and employer, we need to ask ourselves: how can we enable the communities we work for to flourish if the diversity of our own community does not reflect those who employ us? This is a question we need to revisit often and with genuine intent to effect change.
I believe, having experienced it, that there is a prejudice which faces many women of childbearing age, particularly when it comes to women seeking employment or women who are actively employed. I know I’ve been asked on many occasions, “When do you think you’ll have children?” While I am really excited and happy that my husband, Will, and I are expecting our first baby in August I remember being asked often, “So, when will you have a baby?” and feeling really conflicted about how I should answer. It’s a question often asked with the best intentions, but the pain it can cause is really damaging. For many women, the road to becoming a mum isn’t simple. As many as 1 in 5 couples will require medical intervention to fall pregnant. This intervention is expensive, invasive and emotionally trying. Asking a woman in the middle of her fourth or maybe fifth IVF cycle “When will you have a baby?” is heartbreaking for her. Similarly, asking a woman that same question who has no intention of becoming a parent can also be hurtful – why should she feel constant pressure to reproduce just because she’s female? In the workplace, the best rule for dealing with reproduction is to remember that it’s not your business and that you have no right to ask!
Prior to falling pregnant, I would hear comments like, “Don’t come back to work after you have baby, surely you’d be happier at home with the children.” – this was said to me by a senior leader at an organisation I was employed by. While many women would love to stay at home full-time with their children, the financial pressures of the real world often prevent this. Pointing out that a woman’s financial situation is ripping her away from her family is hardly positive, it’s demoralising and is sure to max out the mum guilt scale. Instead, when a woman returns to work, try asking questions like, “How are you settling into balancing things? Is there anything we can do to support the transition?”
One of the major objectives of IWD is to initiate conversations to dispel the unconscious biases or misunderstandings, which cause people to ask these questions or think differently about women of childbearing ages. IWD is about acknowledging that our past culture was not inclusive or accommodating of the differences between genders; however, times have changed, and we’re ready to make changes to our thought processes which align with the expectations of our developing communities. We all believe in equality – it’s time to practice it internally and overtly.
So, why is our superpower (bearing children) seen as a disadvantage?
When hiring, managers are looking for suitable candidates; they should consider the life experiences or work experiences people may have. In the case of a woman with children, or of childbearing age, they should consider how her experiences may have developed desirable skills or problem-solving abilities. They should also consider her career experience, regardless of the time she has taken off to raise a family. The same is true of men who choose to be the primary carer of their family (although, presently, this number makes up less than 5% of all working parents in Australia).
When a woman falls pregnant, employers should remember that some additional flexibility may be required as attending medical appointments in the first trimester and last trimester can be time-consuming. Most women are willing to work back any time missed while attending appointments to compensate. Women will also need support emotionally as they come to terms with their changing roles (becoming a parent while still being a valued member of a team). Some women will find it challenging to hand over their projects or let go of a piece of work which has been their focus for an extended period of time; some women will feel guilty about leaving their team in the lurch (both of these can be addressed through cultural changes in the workplace). Put yourself in their shoes, how would you feel if you “had” to give up your work in order to have a family. It’s a strange feeling saying a temporary goodbye to something which is so fulfilling and heading into the unknown. Make sure the woman knows that her job (or a comparable job) will be there for her on her return. Plan out the “keeping in touch days” she’s entitled to use during her formal leave. Put a communication plan in place to provide her with monthly updates on how everything is going, so she doesn’t feel left out of the team. Invite her (and the new addition) to work functions/lunches, so she has a chance to contribute and continue to build on her relationships actively. Managers should also continue to invite the woman (no pressure implied) to attend any relevant training sessions or CPD sessions she might find interesting and useful – a lot can change in the AEC industry in a year of maternity leave. If there are any client functions or lunches where her clients might be in attendance – make sure to send her an invite. It can be just as reassuring for her clients as it will be for her to show that she is still a valued and important member of the company family.
Companies should also consider implementing a ‘return to work’ policy where there is a reverse project handover/ update and an update on any software of workplace changes the woman or returning parent needs to be across. Taking time off can knock someone’s confidence in their skills and abilities, it’s essential they feel supported when they return to ensure their success.
If you are going to invite a mother and her little one into the workplace – make sure you have created a safe and quiet space for her to breastfeed, express or spend time with her baby. If you are an employer, make sure this place exists before a woman returns to work! If the woman does choose to continue breastfeeding at work, make sure you support her right to breastfeeding and provide her with a suitable and safe place to do so.
In many cases, it may take time for a primary carer (mother or father) to transition back into full-time employment after caring for a baby. Where possible, employers should accommodate part-time / job share arrangements to allow the primary carer to work around other childcare arrangements and adjust to the changes.
Forward-thinking workplaces who value diversity stand to gain so much through the equal employment of women and men. By empowering women in the workplace, rather than hindering them with a lack of flexibility or understanding, companies can continue to expand skillsets, retain valuable corporate knowledge and improve the sense of family and business culture within their organisation.