Women are still significantly underrepresented in senior leadership roles in New Zealand. A recent Champions for Change diversity report showed women making up approximately one-third of leaders from the executive level upwards, and according to Diversity Works representation at these levels is going backwards. This is problematic. Somewhere along the lines, opportunities for women to participate are lacking. But why should you care? Firstly, should it not be an ethical and moral imperative that everybody in New Zealand has equal opportunities for education and employment? Secondly, we need more women at senior leadership levels. Listening to Vic Crone from Callaghan Innovation speak at a PhD event last week, we’re facing a period of unprecedented and intense change and need greater innovation and adaptability in our businesses. This will only come from a mindset shift within our senior leaders. A shift that encompasses diversity of thought and an exploration of different ways of working.
So why are women not making it into these senior roles? There is compelling research to suggest that this could have something to do with women taking on less responsible duties, lower-status part-time or flexible work options, or dropping out of the paid workforce altogether when they become mothers. Yet, these kinds of decisions are often rationalised as a ‘choice’ individual mothers make to prioritise care-giving responsibilities over paid work. She hasn’t ‘leaned-in’, she’s ‘leaned-out’, and that’s her business. It’s a mindset that both mothers and organisations are complicit in maintaining. But it ignores the power plays of norms and assumptions surrounding appropriate roles for mothers, and dismisses the systemic issues in how work gets organised and rewarded. Up until I became a mother I believed I had equal opportunities and it was up to me to make the most of them. But upon returning to work after maternity leave, I was passed over for a leadership position in my team, and kept out of the loop on interesting projects that might require travel. None of these things were maliciously intended. In fact, easily wrapped up in ‘considerate’ assumptions being made about my new life priorities. But this, coupled with a felt expectation to work longer than my part-time hours in order to be recognised, were death knells to my motivation to continue in paid employment. Now, after spending the past 9 months immersed in literature, I’m very aware that my story is a cliche version of why women exit the workforce after becoming mothers – lack of opportunity to progress, feeling undervalued, a struggle with ‘balance’. The ‘lean in’ manifesto is failing working mothers because it individualises our experiences while excusing systemic discrimination.
So I’m choosing now to research motherhood alongside leadership. Because if we can ‘see’ mothers as leaders, could we have greater power to address gender inequality at those senior levels? This is about role models, yes. But it’s also about deconstructing what we understand as motherhood, and what we understand as leadership. I see mothers as the ultimate embodiment of humanity – in that we have given our bodies to conceive, grow, birth, sustain, nurture, and comfort new life. But dominant archetypes of leadership are far removed from this. In fact, some might say the opposite, an aspirational ideal that revolves around clean, proper, contained, authentically follower centric and ‘god-like’ in their omnipotent manifestations. I’m proposing playing with both concepts side by side to see what gets thrown up. In this contrast, could something new be birthed? My research question, at this stage, revolves around how do mothers’ embody leadership?
Mothers bodies, and this contrast between two opposing ideals, are a site of inspiration for my research and, in that sense, I’m honing in on some very specific areas. But I’m doing so while looking around me. At the dad sidelined into the work no-one else wants to do because he insists on leaving work at 5pm to spend time with his kids before they go to bed. At the dad feeling trapped in long hours and missing out on seeing his children grow up because he’s now the sole breadwinner. At the mums struggling to be the parents they feel they need to be and the worker expected of them, reconciling this struggle with antidepressants, feeling unable to speak up at work or be transparent about where they’re falling for fear of being perceived as unenthusiastic about work and further sidelined into work they can ‘handle’. These are somewhat simplified, but very real examples, indicative of larger, more systemic challenges, surrounding how work gets organised, what gets rewarded and recognised, how people are able to bring their full selves to work, and larger issues concerning how we measure the success of our organisations. The dominant constructions surrounding motherhood and leadership, where I’m focusing my attention, are only one part of the bigger picture.
It’s a space where very little research already exists. and I’m left wondering why that is? What I know is that motherhood can be an individualising and isolating experience that mothers, particularly those who have focused on their career, struggle with. Is it a touchy subject? Or is the emphasis placed more strongly on these individual mothers to ‘sort their shit out’? So everyone else shouldn’t concern themselves with it? In many cases, initiatives to address the transition of mothers back to work puts the accountability on those mothers to make it work or leave. Does shifting the focus to the organisational systems and structures make the existing power holders too uncomfortable? Or does it make you uncomfortable about your complicit role in it? Because what struck me when I began reading about this topic, is that we think we’ve achieved gender equality. It’s a particularly discomforting belief to see in young women, pre-children, playing the game by the rules and believing it to be fair. But what Anne-Marie Slaughter says in her TED talk really resonated with me, that the equality of women shouldn’t be judged on the standards of men. We don’t need more women acting like men in senior leadership positions. We need greater diversity of thinking and inclusivity around different ways of being in the world. I hold to the view that women have a slightly different experience of life and parenthood, in that our bodies are very much part of the process, with different practicalities, norms and assumptions surrounding them. But are we too scared to touch bodies?
So where to from here? I’m currently working on my research proposal in preparation for my provisional year review, and ethics applications, early next year. This means further shaping, and refining of my research focus, and a lot more reading of existing literature. My aim is to start advertising for research participants in March. At this point, I’m proposing to run focus groups with mothers who are also leaders, or aspirational leaders. I’m very mindful of my research making some sort of difference, in imbuing mothers with their own agency to question and resist normalised structures that wield power over them, and organisations to question their ways of constructing leadership and support mothers on this pathway.