Author Archives: Amanda Sterling

Why study motherhood and leadership?

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. 

The disembodiment of leadership

I asked on a LinkedIn post recently ‘How would you describe leadership?’ The words I got in response included; enabling, inspiring, self-awareness, humility, authenticity, transparency, resilience, supporting, helping, recognising, empowering, facilitating, influencing, understanding, and nurturing (Sterling, 2019). These words imply a human-centered interest in one’s followers. But as I traverse the world of practitioner discourse and academic research into leadership, I’m beginning to feel inclined towards framing leadership as a disembodied experience. One further disconnected from the human experience than encapsulating it. There are several different ways I see this happening and I’d like to invite you to question your own norms and assumptions as I explore these, as well as propose some areas that offer potential to re-imagine leadership more humanely.

This all starts with how we understand leadership and how we play to the power of that. There are many different interpretations and definitions. Asking that question I posed at the start of this post – ‘How would you describe leadership?’ – generated a broad range of answers. Leadership is less a thing that can be objectively described, like ‘water’ is ‘water’, but a subjective construct that is open to many different interpretations and enactments. We drift to what’s popular, what’s within our sphere of understanding, what feels a comfortable level of discomfort for us. But it’s as if the very complexity and fluidity of leadership leaves it more open to established and entrenched norms and assumptions dictating how we understand it. What we know rushes in to fill the gap of what we don’t. 

So what are the norms and assumptions at the foundation of leadership? The big one is gender, and the stereotypes we are ‘captive’ to and complicit in. From an early age we perform the gender roles assigned to our bodies by identifying with a learned ideology, ‘girl’ or ‘boy’, and constantly creating ourselves in that image (see West & Zimmerman, 1987). We judge, and are judged by the labels and meanings attached to these bodies. Our own understandings, beginning with our first experiences, and developed over time. Our first encounter with leadership is via our parents; generally speaking the authoritarian father and the caring and nurturing mother (Sinclair, 2004). These are powerful constructs of self, and others that hold sway over us. Our ways of ‘being’ in this world are closely aligned with our need to be connected to other humans, to be seen, to belong. Our status as humans is called into question if we challenge norms. So, as Butler (2004) puts it, this means complying no matter how restrictive, debilitating or unrealistic these norms seem to be. 

It’s in this humanness, our need to define our world by what is normal, that we subert what makes us human; our bodies. We don’t ‘see’ humans anymore. We see a constructed ideology. One associated with leadership, and one associated with the appropriate genders of our leaders. These are overlapping constructs and have implications for the inclusion, or exclusion, of particular traits or behaviours. Critiques of the symbolism, undertone and focus of leadership revolves around a masculine narrative (see Sinclair, 2005; Ford & Harding, 2011; Ford & Harding, 2007; Nicholson & Carroll, 2013; and these are just what I’ve read so far!). When we ‘see’ leadership it’s generally a white man, poised in his power suit, or charismatically approachable with his open buttons and blazer. Ironically, men in leadership don’t get judged on their bodies but women do. Yet, we don’t ‘see’ leaders when women demonstrate behaviours that could be considered leadership if only we’d broaden our spectrum (Nixon & Sinclair, 2017). Where women are positioned as leaders, their contributions are undervalued even if they are creating economic value (Abdullah et al, 2016). Or they are more susceptible to harsh stereotyping or strict scrutiny that may affect firm performance metrics (Hoobler, et al, 2018). We have discomfort towards women with power (Nixon & Sinclair, 2017). Simply put a woman isn’t fitting into our normative understanding of her gender role, and what we imagine as leadership. She is penalised; not for what she does, but for what we believe.

So how would you describe a leader? Referring back to those words I used at the beginning; they are perfect, and perfectly aspirational. This beautiful manifestation of a leader knows themselves well enough to self-regulate and be true to the core to their values, preferences and emotions; they are able to connect with people, win acceptance, and know what to reveal to whom. They are inherently good, virtuous, with the utmost standards of moral leadership (Ford & Harding, 2011). We all want to be lead by a person like this. We may even want to be that person. This ideal has such a powerful hold on our consciousness. It’s certainly well intentioned. It plays to our desire to create a better world. But it’s the infallible allure of this, untouchability in its perfection, transcendence above the mere mundane ‘managers’ and ‘workers’, that positions leaders as above us mere mortals with our fallibilities and dark sides. It underscores the prevailing heroic, grandiose, ‘god-like’ archetype of leadership. And who do you picture when you read of gods? Leadership is simultaneously disembodied, above corporeal concerns, and masculine. 

What are the options? Ignore gender in the embodiment of leadership? We’re supposedly on a level playing field after all. Gender equality and all that. But Kelan’s (2010) study of ICT workers is a nice illustration of the perils of ignoring gender, to the continual reinforcement of the dominant bodied norms. These workers insisted that the workplace was gender neutral. Yet this quote and summary illustrates the subtext: “one should not bring to the foreground that one is a woman” (Kelan, 2010; p. 184) and then there is no discrimination. In leaving bodies at the door, we robe ourselves in a masculine worker ideal disguised as gender equality. But on the flip-side, where femininity is addressed (in the neo-liberal / faux feminist agenda, see McRobbie, 2009) it acts as a safety net of feminine values as we negotiate power with men. Both a stepping forth into the workplace and an apology for doing so; ‘it’s ok, I’m just a girl’. Ignoring femaleness in favour of a dominant work ideology emphasises that being a professional is being a man. Yet, expressing feminine embodiment within a masculine work culture could do more to subvert bodies than triumph them. Gender equality is not sameness, a level playing field or an assimilation, but a fearless expression of human embodiment within a context where this is welcomed. 

The presence of bodies, or lack thereof, remains an issue in the workplace. Women are still not making it into senior leadership positions, in fact the number in New Zealand is going backwards (Diversity Works, 2019). The bodies are simply not there. I am not proposing here that women necessarily have a better, or even different, way of leading (I might explore that in another post). But I invite you to question whether, in our quest for the ultimate, human, leader, we’ve made leadership an unattainable, disembodied concept? One that places women’s bodies as ‘other’ to the norm. Sinclair and Nixon (2017) suggest that being more anchored in our own bodies could consciously change our mindset towards ourselves and others influencing a leader’s capacity for openness and learning. And that bodies outside the norms, give greater opportunities to challenge them. Could registering feelings, including our dark sides, tensions and challenges; as well as embracing our messy, fleshy, corporealness, give us greater connection to our humanity and more ‘real’ forms of leadership? In my own research, I’m looking to explore whether embracing the embodiment, enactment and experience of being a mother could move leadership into a new conversation. One where real human bodies matter because they’re allowed to show up as such, not just as who we imagine them to be, or filtered by what we’re comfortable with. 

 So, if I can leave you with one more question; how would you describe the kind of leadership that makes you uncomfortable?


 Abdullah, S. N., Ismail, K. N. I. K., & Nachum, L. (2016). Does having women on boards create value? The impact of societal perceptions and corporate governance in emerging markets. Strategic Management Journal, 37(3), 466–476.

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender. Routledge.

Diversity Works. (2019). New Zealand Workplace Diversity Survey 2019.

Ford, J., & Harding, N. (2007). Move Over Management: We Are All Leaders Now. Management Learning, 38(5), 475–493.

Ford, J., & Harding, N. (2011). The impossibility of the ‘true self’ of authentic leadership. Leadership, 7(4), 463–479.

Hoobler, J. M., Masterson, C. R., Nkomo, S. M., & Michel, E. J. (2018). The Business Case for Women Leaders: Meta-Analysis, Research Critique, and Path Forward. Journal of Management. 44(6).

Kelan, E. K. (2010). Gender Logic and (Un)doing Gender at Work. Gender, Work & Organization, 17(2), 174–194.

McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: Gender, culture and social change. Los Angeles ; London: SAGE.

Nicholson, H., & Carroll, B. (2013). Identity undoing and power relations in leadership development. Human Relations, 66(9), 1225–1248.

Nixon, C, & Sinclair, A. (2017). Women Leading. Melbourne University Publishing.

Sinclair, A. (2004). Doing Leadership Differently: Gender, Power And Sexuality In A Changing Business Culture. Melbourne University Publishing.

Sinclair, A. (2005). Body Possibilities in Leadership. Leadership, 1(4), 387–406.

Sterling, A. (2019, July 9). How would you describe leadership? LinkedIn Post. Retrieved July 16, 2019.

West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing Gender. Gender & Society, 1(2), 125–151.


Supporting Mothers returning to work

The 2019 Workplace Diversity Survey (Diversity Works, 2019) reported a significant increase in gender as a diversity concern. But it also highlighted a lack of action in addressing gender issues in the workplace. I’m heartened by this because it means that what I’m researching and writing about is a topical concern for organisations. But the pervasive reluctance to address gender issues in the workforce keeps popping up in my research around mothers, and it’s the same theme; the systemic structural barriers to mother’s participation, deflecting attention from the real issues by packaging exit as individual choice. What do we do about it? Is there hope?

I spent the better part of last week immersed in brain based coaching techniques, in a course run by the Neuroleadership Institute. As humans we’re automatically primed to look for negatives, we scan for threats. But this thinking seldom propels us into doing anything differently. As I’d like my research to make some sort of impact, I’m experimenting with bringing forward thinking reframing into my writing on this subject. In this spirit, I’d like to offer three suggestions for taking some of the critical research I’ve been wading through and turning it into actionable steps.

My suggestions focus on how managers of people, organisational policy, and those who develop managers, can support mothers returning to work – so mothers can fulfill their potential and make a meaningful contribution. These suggestions could go for how dads are treated too.

Suggestions on how to support mothers returning to work:

One:  Regularly check in how they’re coping. Not just how they’re progressing with work goals, but how they’re FEELING in their transition back to work. Give specific time and attention to this.

Here’s an idea of how you could frame this up:

‘I just want to check in how you’re getting on. I know, from being a parent myself, it can be really hard coming back to work. I want you to know that you can talk to me, and that what you say within this room stays here. If you want to talk about what’s going on at home, I’d like you to be comfortable doing that. Let’s set aside 30mins every week/two weeks* for the next few months to check in how you’re going and ensure you have the support and resources you need in transitioning back to work. Would that work for you?’

The research tells us that the inability to reconcile the competing demands, and contradictory identities, of work and home is a significant factor in mothers leaving work. Making space to talk about it, names it, claims it, and tames it. Meaning that understanding what is going on in the individual’s circumstances opens up an opportunity to put in place resources and support before that person feels that their only option is to leave.

* whatever time and frequency seems appropriate. The important thing is making sure you’re giving it the airtime and focus.  

Two: No matter how progressive you think you are, check your unconscious biases. A culmination of little exclusionary acts, that seem to make logical and economic sense at the time, consistently come up in the research as reinforcing the normative discrimination against mothers.

I’ve been playing around with IF/THEN statements for checking and refocusing unconscious and habitual behaviours and they’re worth giving a go here. Try these:

  • IF you are leaving someone out of training or development because they’re about to go on maternity leave, THEN talk to them about still including them before they go.

Soon-to-be mothers are often overlooked for development because they’re taking time out of work and there’s uncertainty over whether they’ll return. But it leaves mothers feeling undervalued, compounding reasons for not returning.

Show that you still value them and commit to the long-term of your investment.

  • IF you are hiring someone, promoting, or giving a pay rise within your team THEN be very transparent about the reasons for the hire, promotion, or pay-rise.

Particularly when you have a team member on maternity leave, just returned or who has flexible/part-time work arrangements because of caregiving responsibilities. Being transparent, could include giving everyone in the team the opportunity to be considered (even the person on maternity leave), running a process, and communicating the decision with a rationale based on skills and attributes required for the role.

Often why people are hired, promoted, rewarded and recognised is informed by unconscious subtexts around the ‘ideal’ worker – someone who can demonstrate an ‘all in’ commitment to work. These are practices that disadvantage mothers.

Assume instead that the mums working for you also want to make a contribution by doing challenging and stimulating work.

  • IF you are giving interesting/challenging work to your full-time workers THEN challenge yourself on whether your part-timers/flexible workers might be equally committed and capable.

Having interesting work dry up and doing less responsible duties are more reasons mothers leave work – it’s the dream of intellectual stimulation unfulfilled.

You might have to be a bit more creative about how this work gets done. But it could be a great conversation starter about different sorts of work practices that deliver results. And it could be a great thing for the rest of your team too.

Three: Critically examine what gets rewarded and recognised. Because what keeps coming up in the research are the systems and structures, built around traditionally male lives, that value long-hours, presenteeism, 24/7 availability and a higher monetary reward for quantifiable outcomes over soft skills. Most part-timers are women and more women are in roles associated with caring responsibilities. They’re generally lower paid – a factor in decision-making about who takes on the majority of child-care.

Rather than make suggestions here, I’d like to pose a couple of questions:

  • Is your team recognised and rewarded on outcomes or hours?
  • Are your part-timers delivering the same outcomes you could reasonably expect from your full-timers? Are they being paid the same?

In conclusion

These suggestions revolve around ensuring mothers are heard, supported and valued in the workplace. The first two are within the immediate control of managers and could even be quick wins. The third suggestion could be a quick win but also addresses organisational wide policies on what gets rewarded and recognised.

I’d like to invite any mums (or dads) reading this to comment on what their experiences have been. What did your organisation do that helped you transition back to work after parental leave? What do you wish you had that would have helped you contribute your full potential as a primary caregiver at work?



Diversity Works New Zealand, (2019). New Zealand Diversity Survey 2019. Retrieved from:  Retrieved 19th June 2019.


A mother is not an ideal worker, and why that matters for everyone

In my experience the term ‘best person for the job’ has been used to rationalise why people are hired, promoted, rewarded and recognised. This is seemingly justified by skills and attributes listed on paper, or even by hiring for ‘cultural fit’. Yet this term ‘best’ is informed by unconscious subtexts that shape decision-making. It is these undercurrents that define the ‘ideal’ worker and position mothers as deviant, not fitting in, to these characteristics. Where often mothers are described as making the choice to leave paid employment, structural discrimination makes it less about choice and more about gravitating to the least fraught and tensioned decisions; flexible or part-time work, or leaving the workforce altogether. This is you, your mother, your sister, your wife or partner, your friend; who does not have equal opportunities to participate. A mother is not an ‘ideal’ worker.

The ‘ideal’ worker is shaped by some very current, and topical, environmental pressures. Mainly global competition and technology increasing workloads and driving accessibility (Gascoigne, Parry, & Buchanan, 2015). Symptoms include working faster and harder with fewer breaks, longer and unsociable hours, traveling more, and 24/7 availability (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014; Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Where autonomy exists over start and finish times, the ‘ideal’ worker will ‘choose’ to work longer hours, or rationalise work to greater intensity (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014). The ‘ideal’ worker understands that ‘full-time’ means overtime, and competitive presenteeism is rewarded and recognised (Crosby, Williams, & Biernat, 2004). The ‘ideal’ worker is someone able to assimilate to an ‘all in’ commitment to work. Leadership potential is measured through their ability to do so. The ‘ideal’ worker is a man, either without caregiving responsibilities, or someone at home to take care of them (Padavic et al, 2019; Cahusac & Kanji, 2014). The ‘ideal’ worker is not a mother with pressures that pull her away.

This ‘ideal’ worker archetype is pervasive through the research into why significant amounts of mothers exit the workforce. It assumes that jobs are a thing apart from the humans that inhabit them, and that organisations are abstract and bodiless (Acker, 1990). You leave your humanity at the door when you step into work. Work is meetings, timeframes, hierarchies, policies, procedures; logical, rational, planned and ordered. A place where compliance with certainty is valued over uncertainty. Home is the embodiment of humanity; love, family, emotion, birth, death, sickness; messiness, uncertainty, and unpredictability. This distinction may go some way to explain why ‘softer’ skills go undervalued in organisations. For example, evaluating and rewarding jobs based on concrete examples of task completion e.g. managing money vs. human relations (Acker, 1990). But we’re not whole humans when we have to make the choice every day between love (family/home) and work (Padavic, et al. 2019). Both men and women feel this anxiety, but mothers ultimately pay the price for it.

The reality is that overlap is not welcomed or encouraged between the separate spheres of work and home. Home mirrors the very chaotic environmental factors that most organisations are trying to dominate. Women describe compensating for, or hiding, their domestic responsibilities (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014). As the very embodiment of our leaky and corporeal humanity, maternity and breastfeeding are out of place at work. Mothers comport their bodies to fit in or hide behind stoicism so as not to draw attention (Gatrell, 2019). Raising children and child sickness compromises the distinction between the spheres (Crosby et al., 2004; Haynes, 2008). The ‘good’ mother narrative tells us mothers should be natural, embodied and child-centric. But the pressure to fulfill the ‘good’ mother and the ‘ideal’ worker makes the role of mother and professional worker incompatible.

So it’s easier to comply with pervasive ‘appropriate’ gender roles then battle against them. Being a ‘breadwinner’ is still a socially accepted norm for men. Men can be the ‘ideal’ worker while simultaneously demonstrating devotion by providing for their family (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). They’re judged less, and even applauded for it. Mothers are held to a higher, and irreconcilable, standard. A bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. The successful mother, ‘ideal’ worker, means she is an inactive parent and not a ‘good’ mother (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Women role models either don’t have children, the ‘honourable man’ (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014), or looked at with “I don’t want to be ‘that mother’” sentiment.

In an engineered experiment, 260 participants – a mix of male and female – were asked to review CVs/ jobs applications that were essentially identical except for gender and parental status (Benard & Correll, 2010). Participants had to comment, rate and make recommendations on whether that person should be hired, and what they should be paid. Mothers who were successful at work were perceived as significantly less warm and likeable than successful fathers, less likely to be recommended for hire, and had lower starting salaries. Interestingly, females were more likely than males to discriminate against mothers. Benard & Correll (2010) suggest that this could have something to do with the perceived, and real, barriers that women face; a successful women is an unattainable threat to self-concept.

The ‘ideal’ worker pressures, inability to bring humanity into work, and gender norms mean that mothers are more likely to take part-time, flexible work options, or leave paid employment altogether. But these paths are more likely to be a career derailing ‘off-ramps’ for mothers (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Part-time, and/or flexible work, demonstrates lack of commitment to the ‘ideal’ worker and is linked to lower status (Padavic et al, 2019). Being passed over for promotion, having interesting work dry up, doing less responsible duties, being paid less (sometimes on a pro-rata rate but still delivering the outcomes of a full-time worker), are just a few examples of legally ambiguous and damaging practices that leave mothers feeling undervalued and ultimately exiting the workforce. Crosby et al. (2004) calls this the ‘maternal wall’. There is also some suggestion that the gender pay gap may be a motherhood gap (Glass, 2004).

Women’s exit from the labour market is often positioned as a preference for domesticity and motherhood. It’s a ‘choice’ to leave the full-time workforce. But we “disempower women by endorsing their exit as a natural, almost inevitable consequence.” (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014 pg. 58).  The systemic, structural and normative discrimination bundled up in how work is organised, and what gets recognised and rewarded, leaves little room for ‘choice’. Long hours work cultures are detrimental to both men and women but women pay the higher price (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019). Mothers face a ‘take it or leave it’ situation. “Either the mother commits to the working practices of dominant masculinity, that is boundless time schedules, a suppressed personal life and a reduced investment in care, reinforcing what some mothers feel is a destructive work paradigm, or they must accept lower-status work” (Cahusac & Kanji, 2014. pg . 67).

In the last five years the New Zealand Human Rights Commission has received reports of 133 cases of alleged discrimination due to pregnancy or maternity (Human Rights Commission, personal communication, March 29, 2019). This number is disturbingly low and suggests that current methods of defining discrimination against mothers are attached to deviant behaviours of individual actors rather than systems and structures that prevent mothers participating. As Cahusac & Kanji (2014) put it “every adult should be economically active and afforded equal opportunities” (pg. 467). But the focus on interventions such a flexible work policies positions this as an individual concern to balance family responsibilities. It excuses leaders from addressing the underlying challenges for mothers to participate. If women ‘prefer’ to be with their families then leaders cannot be held accountable to that (Padavic, Ely, & Reid, 2019).

Acker (1990) calls for an end to organisations as they exist today “along with a redefinition of work and work relations” pg. 155. But if we want to give real weight to conversations about diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities, I suggest shifting the conversation from work/life balance to work/life blend and bringing humanity into work. Not just for mothers, but for everyone. This means getting comfortable with the visceral, messy, embodied, chaotic, parts of ourselves.  A mother is not an ‘ideal’ worker, but she could be something better and that would benefit everyone.


Acker. (1990). Hierachies, jobs, bodies: A theory of Gendered Organizations. Gender & Society, 4(2), 139–158.

Benard, S., & Correll, S. J. (2010). Normative Discrimination and the Motherhood Penalty. Gender & Society, 24(5), 616–646.

Cahusac, E., & Kanji, S. (2014). Giving Up: How Gendered Organizational Cultures Push Mothers Out: How Gendered Organizational Cultures Push Mothers Out. Gender, Work & Organization, 21(1), 57–70.

Crosby, F. J., Williams, J. C., & Biernat, M. (2004). The Maternal Wall. Journal of Social Issues, 60(4), 675–682.

Gascoigne, C., Parry, E., & Buchanan, D. (2015). Extreme work, gendered work? How extreme jobs and the discourse of ‘personal choice’ perpetuate gender inequality. Organization, 22(4), 457–475.

Gatrell, C. (2019). Boundary Creatures? Employed, Breastfeeding Mothers and ‘Abjection as Practice.’ Organization Studies, 40(3), 421–442.

Glass, J. (2004). Blessing or Curse?: Work-Family Policies and Mother’s Wage Growth Over Time. Work and Occupations, 31(3), 367–394.

Haynes, K. (2008). (Re)figuring accounting and maternal bodies: The gendered embodiment of accounting professionals. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 33, 328–348.

Human Rights Commission. (2019, March 29). 190329 – Response to Request for Information.

Padavic, I., Ely, R. J., & Reid, E. M. (2019). Explaining the Persistence of Gender Inequality: The Work–family Narrative as a Social Defense against the 24/7 Work Culture. Administrative Science Quarterly, 000183921983231.

What is a mother?

If I were to write a letter to myself pre-motherhood I’d tell that younger, more naive, version of myself to forget what she thinks it’s going to be like, to let go of expectations of herself and others, and banish the word ‘should’ from her vocabulary. But if she’d listened, or even understood, she might not have had the experiences that shaped her, me, as a mother.

There was this sentiment frequently expressed in some of the mother’s groups I was involved in, that if you were worried about how your child was eating, sleeping, growing etc. then you were a ‘good’ mother. Conversely implying that if you weren’t worrying about what ‘should’ be happening you were not a good mother, maybe even a bad mother. What you ‘should’ be doing is an omnipotent yardstick for most mothers, it’s a good beating stick too. The most contentious of the ‘shoulds’ concerning childbirth and breastfeeding.

Motherhood ‘should’ be natural. As if somewhere along the way we develop this innate ability to grow a human (knowing exactly what to eat and do to keep it safe), pop it out our vagina (without pain relief or medical intervention), suckle it on our breast (exclusively for the next 2-years) and selflessly devote our lives to these small humans (foregoing care and concern for ourselves). All whilst feeling 100% fulfilled with our lives. Engagement with this ‘natural’, ‘good’, conceptual understanding of motherhood is problematic.

A ‘good’ mother is supposed to ‘become’ through the pain and self-sacrifice of a vaginal birth, and yet do so responsibly; surrounded by medical experts and technology. This dichotomy is illustrated by mothers who have emergency c-sections and describe their rite of passage into motherhood as incomplete because they had not given birth ‘naturally’ (Malacrida & Boulton, 2012).

Women are supposed to ‘know’ who they are as mothers through some eureka moment of insight. But for new mothers this looks more like confusion, as the romantic image of motherhood looks different from reality (Miller, 2007; Oakley, 1986). The strength of relationship between mother and baby doesn’t happen straight away but emerges progressively through learned experience (Oakley, 1986).

Breastfeeding educational materials reteach women the naturalness and essentialness of this practice through scientifically based professional intervention (Wall, 2007), as if women are very ignorant of their own instincts. It downplays the challenges of breastfeeding and positions women who don’t as deviants, as unnatural.

Mothers fall short of these ‘natural’ expectations, as if the biology of being a women isn’t enough to make mothers. Yet a mother is undoubtedly a ‘she’ in the default positions that women hold as primary caregivers. And the physical embodiment of motherhood is enough to uncomfortably contrast with the proper, clean, contained and rational; the masculine business/organisational norms. The place where original, pre-mother, identities come from. But a mother doesn’t fit anymore. A mother is ‘leaky; hormonal tears, discharge, blood, and breastmilk. She represents lack of control, uncertainty and non-conformity.

In her tensioned world a mother is no longer able to comply with the ‘ideal’ worker, the ‘best’ worker. But she doesn’t stop trying. She comports her physical self to avoid being marginalised; hiding discomfort, fear, pain, and self-regulating milk supplies to undertake paid work (Gattrell, 2019). Yet, “not being able to achieve consistency in ‘who you are’, or who you are beginning to perceive yourself to be, is the start of a process of leaving that culminates in actually leaving” (Kanji & Cahusac, 2015; pg. 1431).

The real mother and the imagined are not the same. The real mother and the ‘best’ worker don’t exist in the same space. There is no ‘choice’ in this (Ograd, 2019). There is a reconciliation of loss, sense-making and construction of a new identity, but no choice. (Kanji & Cahusac, 2015). Current work practices designed to facilitate greater participation in work (eg. flexible work) don’t address the identity dissonances that mothers face. Maternity is still the failure of the working girl (McRobbie, 2009), and motherhood is one of the main barriers to equality that women face (Bradley, 2013).

So, who are you as a mother? If I were to finish that letter to myself, pre-motherhood, I still don’t know how I’d explain it to her, or even if I’d want to. Motherhood is as varied, complex, and tensioned as mothers are. Yet it in this ‘inbetween’ space that mothers inhabit that we carve out our own space and do one of the most undervalued, yet valuable, jobs there is.


Bradley, H. (2013). Gender (Second edition, 2nd edition revised and updated). Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity.

Gatrell, C. (2019). Boundary Creatures? Employed, Breastfeeding Mothers and ‘Abjection as Practice.’ Organization Studies, 40(3), 421–442.

Kanji, S., & Cahusac, E. (2015). Who am I? Mothers’ shifting identities, loss and sensemaking after workplace exit. Human Relations, 68(9), 1415–1436.

Malacrida, C., & Boulton, T. (2012). Women’s Perceptions of Childbirth “Choices”: Competing Discourses of Motherhood, Sexuality, and Selflessness. Gender & Society, 26(5), 748–772.

Mavin, S., & Grandy, G. (2016). A theory of Abject Appearance: Women elite leaders’ intra-gender ‘management’ of bodies and appearance. Human Relations, 69(5), 1095–1120.

McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: gender, culture and social change. Los Angeles ; London: SAGE.

Miller, T. (2007). “Is This What Motherhood is All About?”: Weaving Experiences and Discourse through Transition to First-Time Motherhood. Gender & Society, 21(3), 337–358.

Oakley, A. (1986). From Here to Maternity: Becoming a Mother. Penguin.

Orgad, S. (2019). Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality. Columbia University Press.

Wall, G. (2001). Moral Constructions of Motherhood in Breastfeeding Discourse. Gender and Society, 15(4), 592–610. Retrieved from JSTOR.

The write way

How do you write in an academic context, while challenging the academic constraints, as well as connecting beyond the walls of academia with an audience that can incite change?

Much of what I’m researching for my PhD is emotive and political. It makes me angry, sad, frustrated as I traverse between the polar opposite worlds of the ‘ideal mother’ and the ‘ideal worker’ and the realities that underpin both. In the middle of these is a space that struggles to reconcile a private, visceral, raw, embodied, ‘leaky’ experience, with that of a public, controlled, ordered, rational and constrained organisation.

I find myself stuck in the in-between. Struggling to understand how I can possibly contribute anything novel to this challenge. Talking about motherhood and leadership seems like a stretch too far, when more simple workforce participation appears an insurmountable obstacle. And how can I write about this challenge when my immersion in research and academia incites formal, structured, writing, the stating of perspectives and yet my personal experiences and emotive connections to what I read pulls my arm from my socket to flail at the expectations placed on mothers, the unconscious biases disadvantaging us, and the systems and structures that are supposed to support new mothers, but instead, undermine our confidence in our new identities, both as a mother and a worker? I need you to FEEL something, not just THINK about it.

And this ‘stuck space’ is not the only constraint. I feel compelled to weave my own experiences into my research and writing but can only do so in a way that treats the characters involved, especially myself, with kindness. And I’m attempting to write about something where more experienced academics, and mothers (!) have struggled to find the words – except to say that you cannot describe to those who aren’t mothers what it’s like.

I walk down a path of politics and activism with my research topic. The issues that I’m approaching – mainly centred around gender inequalities – call into question long held bases of power. Most people don’t like having their legitimacy questioned, especially those who don’t see why they should be called to account. And most people don’t react well when they feel threatened.

Do I mind? Should I mind? Am I brave enough? Will anyone care what I write and share anyway? And if I don’t write and share, what’s the point of doing this research? How do I write to inspire reflection, deep thought, and potentially activism and change?

Feminist issues within academia has historically leveraged more ‘non-academic’ forms of writing to reach a broader audience (Lykke, 2010) and this is where much of my research thus far sprouts from. So I have some licence. But I don’t know what this licence gives me. 

I don’t know what the right way is.



Lykke, N. (2010). Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing. Routledge.

The inequalities of motherhood

I’ve started my PhD research with feminism and women’s rights in general, keeping an eye out for maternal issues. I went into this topic naïve. Surely we’ve come a long way with equality? What do we need feminism for? Apparently I’m not alone in this assumption that women actually have equal rights and that the objectives of feminism have been achieved. And that’s part of the problem. The inequities are masked more insidiously. To such an extent that as I was reading about the grip of consumerism, the failed promises that greater opportunities present, and the lack of value placed on motherhood, I was uncomfortably confronted with elements of my own story – of injustices that I had not attributed to my gender or maternal status but had instead owned as my individual problem.

If you’re not familiar with feminism, as I have been, then this definition from Wikipedia (2019) is a helpful starting point:

“Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes”.

Women’s rights movements have given us greater choice. We now have greater access to education and work opportunities outside the home. But as Angela McRobbie (2009) argues in her book ‘The aftermath of feminism: gender, culture and social change’ our work and wage earning capacity now dominates our self-identity and this is a double-edged sword, especially for mothers.

Occupational status is important to women and we are celebrated for what we achieve; money, success, position. It’s a potent and attractive kind of freedom. But this results-orientated approach supports the behaviours of a capitalist ecosystem that makes it impossible for mothers to participate. More specifically, demonstrating commitment and work ethic by being present for long hours in the office, and being on call when the employer needs.

In Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality, Shani Orgad (2019) conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with 35 mothers ‘outside of paid employment’. Most of these women had come from senior leadership or director roles, but the structural inequalities and oppressive expectations that these women had repeatedly experienced had prevented them balancing work and family (Ograd, 2019). This compounds both parents. The expectations on the mothers to ‘put in the time’ influences their decision to meld into the domestic default, and fathers working long hours further re-enforces this default.

Harriet Bradley in Gender (2013) gives two main barriers to women’s equality; motherhood and violence towards women. Shani Orgad (2019) agrees that motherhood presents the most significant challenge women face and McRobbie (2009) points out that maternity is seen as the failure of the working girl. Bradley’s (2013) two main barriers are not mutually exclusive. ‘Violence’ includes ‘Normative Violence’ (Bradley, 2013), the demeaning things we don’t even notice because they’re so commonplace, e.g. catcalling, but also workplace discrimination. Examples of these are illustrated through initiatives such as the Everyday Sexim Project (see Vachhani & Pullen, 2018) and this piece of data that Ograd (2019) shares: “In the UK 60,000 women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, a figure that does not account for women who suffer harassment, are overlooked for promotion or loose contracts if they self-employed”. (pg. 43)

So what does this mean for the work that women do undertake? Bradley (2013) refers to vertical segregation; career paths where there are a greater proportion of women (e.g. nursing, care-giving); and, horizontal segregation; where women are more likely to hold junior positions (e.g. admin, clerical duties). All roles that are lower valued and lower paid. But potentially offer less responsibility and greater opportunities for flexibility? According to Statistics NZ (2014), one in three employed women work part-time, compared to one in ten men, and this work is concentrated in the kinds of lower paid, segregated, roles that Bradley (2013) describes. What do you think this means when families are deciding who will stay at home, or cut hours, to look after the family?

We hit roadblocks when we become a mother and these are pre-priming women for inequality In Shani Ograd’s (2019) research the mothers were telling their daughters to not do anything too ‘high-flying’ because one day they might have to give it up. This is not what these mothers wanted for their daughters. I wonder how many intelligent, motivated, and highly educated young women are already considering ‘easier’ career trajectories that would better accommodate their future babies?

When I was thinking about how I frame up this topic the metaphor that kept coming to mind was of a snake eating its own tail. We just keep going around and around as each aspect of this challenge compounds and re-enforces default positions and gender inequalities. We attribute the progress we have made in work and education as the achievement of women’s rights. But new forms of feminism emphasise our individual responsibilities to ‘lean in’ (Sandberg, 2015), and build our confidence (Cuddy, 2012). This illusion of equality, or the promise of it if we’d only try a bit harder, individualises us and distracts from the systems and structures that undermine women, especially mothers in the workplace.

I feel like I have quite a number of rabbit holes to go down in order to do this research justice. Some of this involves unravelling myths around; work/life-balance or work/life blend; the gig-economy, freelancing and entrepreneurship (or mumpreneurs) as a panacea; what we see as ‘perfect’ motherhood; what we tell ourselves about how inclusive and diverse our business are; and ‘faux’ feminist empowerment centred around consumerism. But I’m also uncovering more questions, like; how are men being supported, or not, to create space for women? What did women’s rights movements do, or not do? What is the value that we could place on motherhood? And, what is the impact of work defining our identity on maternal mental health?  This is only the beginning!


Bradley, H. (2013). Gender. (2nd Ed.) Polity Press.

Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language may shape who you are. TED.Retrieved 1st March,

McRobbie, A. (2009). The aftermath of feminism: gender, culture and social change. Sage.

Ograd, S. (2019). Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality. Columbia University Press.

Sandberg, S. (2015). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knopf.

Statistics New Zealand. (2014). Measuring the gender pay gap. Available from

Vachhani, S. & Pullen, A. (2018). Ethics, politics and feminist organizing: Writing feminist infrapolitics and affective solidarity into everday sexism. Human Relations. Vol. 72(1). 23-47.

Wikipedia. (2019). Feminism. Retrieved 1st March.