Motherhood and Leadership: Research Invitation

I’ve usually done things with my career in response to something I’ve seen as not right or fair. Sometimes it’s because of something that I’ve experienced directly. Like my experiences with bullying were what drove me to connect Human Resources people to come up with ways of making workplaces more humane. That was the social community NZLEAD. Sometimes it’s because of something I’ve seen that has made me very uncomfortable. Like walking out on a job for a profit mongering company that quibbled over small increases to the pay of their minimum wage and vulnerable employees. It’s always been a process of moving away from something that doesn’t serve and towards something that does. 

And my PhD work is no different in that respect. My experience was my inspiration to begin this research. When I returned to work after maternity leave, when my son was 1-year old, I struggled to reconcile work and leadership with the embodiment of motherhood: breastfeeding; sleep deprivation; the revolving door of daycare illnesses; squeezing my post pregnant body into now too small professional clothes; and, wrangling my often crying baby out the door and into the arms of strangers. 

My experience wasn’t helped by some of the informal, unspoken, mechanisms of work that left me feeling an outsider to the behaviours that got rewarded and recognised. Despite part-time hours I felt pressured to work longer than contracted and be contactable after I had left for the day in order for my contribution to be ‘seen’. And although I exceeded all objective measures of work performance, I was passed over for a leadership position in my team, and kept out of the loop on interesting projects that might require travel. After over a decade carving out a career and being told that I could ‘have it all’, I found that even ‘doing it all’ meant I wasn’t going to be recognised as a legitimate worker and leader. 

I started out doing my PhD in order to make sense of what I perceived as my own failure at balancing work, leadership and family. But where I got to was unravelling cliches, so much like my own story, that point to the struggles women face progressing to leadership positions in New Zealand. 

I now have so many more questions and I need your help. The next stage of my research is to explore the stories of women on their embodied leadership and motherhood journeys. More specifically how mothers make sense of, and engage with, norms and assumptions around embodied motherhood (e.g. pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding) and embodied leadership (e.g. what we normally ‘see’ as leadership, the masculine ideals). One of the practical intentions behind this exploration is to uncover opportunities for women entering and sustaining senior leadership positions.

With this in mind I am conducting 2-hour focus group sessions with New Zealand mums who have children less than 5 years old and are in positions of leadership, either formal or by influence, or have leadership aspirations.

The focus groups are designed as a research tool and as a leadership development experience. In that participants will be facilitated through an exploration of their own leadership awareness and action in a safe and supported way. The focus groups are also a space to meet a group of beautifully courageous mums who are potentially experiencing similar challenges navigating work/life/leadership and motherhood. Times and dates will be organised around participants as much as possible, refreshments provided, and child care will be organised for those who need it.

More information about what is involved is on the participant information sheet.

So, how can you help? 

The more participants I get the more women I can reach for an important conversation about leadership. But also, the more participants I have, the more robust and high quality research I can produce, and the greater impact this research can have. 

A little bit about me….

My name is Amanda Sterling, I am a Doctoral student in the Department of Management and International Business, at the University of Auckland. I am a mother myself, with a 3 year old son, as well as a practiced coach and facilitator, with 15+ professional experience working in leadership development for large global, and small local businesses. 

And to find out more about this research…

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Filling your bucket

I’ve been working on some exercises for my coaching tool box and thought this one might be a useful one to share for anyone who might be feeling overwhelmed, afraid, tired or just in need of a boost right now.

It’s based around this analogy of a bucket. In that we all have this invisible bucket of enthusiasm, joy and energy.

We are at our best when our buckets are overflowing – we feel better, we are able to recover from difficulties easier and we are able to give more to others. We are at our worst when our buckets are empty. You can’t give to others from an empty bucket either.

Our buckets can get drained by other people, what is going on around us, and how we respond to these things. Examples could include; worrying, negative feedback, feeling overwhelmed, or lack of sleep. 

But our buckets can be filled by activities that bring us joy, a sense of calm, or give us energy. Examples could include; exercise; time in nature, reading a book, or eating a nice meal. 

Different people will have different things that drain or fill their buckets.

The idea is that you identify the things that fill your bucket, and prioritise doing more of those things. Even if it’s one small thing in a limited slither of time.

In focusing on filling your bucket, you’re better able to respond mindfully to those things that have the potential to drain you and giving yourself more energy and enthusiasm overall.

This simple exercise has been designed to identify and action those things that fill your bucket. Grab some note pad and paper:

  • How full if your bucket today? Give yourself a score out of 10. with 10 being really full and 0 being empty. This is your starting point for filling up your bucket.
  • What are the things that are draining your bucket? Make a list. Acknowledging them can lessen their hold on you, but also provide a start point for moving forward.
  • What are things that you know add to your bucket? ie. activities that you know bring you joy, a sense of calm, or give you energy. Make a list.
  • How could you start doing more of those bucket filling activities? Even if it’s starting with one very small thing. Do that thing consistently for a week and then score your bucket again.

Invitation to Participate

My name is Amanda Sterling, I am a Doctoral student in the Department of Management and International Business, at the University of Auckland. I am conducting research exploring the embodiment of mothers within leadership. According to industry metrics  (e.g. the Champions for Change Diversity Report 2019, and New Zealand Workplace Diversity Survey 2019) women are still significantly underrepresented in senior leadership roles in New Zealand. Initiatives to address this position it as a ‘choice’ for mothers to  take on less responsible duties, lower-status part-time or flexible work options, or drop out of the paid workforce altogether when they become mothers. However, critics of this approach challenge us to question our ‘natural’ assumptions surrounding the ‘appropriate’ places for mothers’ bodies and what we ‘see’ as leadership.  

I am conducting focus groups with New Zealand based mothers who have children younger than five years old and who are leaders (or aspirational leaders), to explore the power and identity dynamics surrounding leadership and embodiment, and uncover opportunities for women entering and sustaining senior leadership positions. 

These focus group sessions are two hours long and have also been designed as a leadership development activity. It is expected that you will:

  • Build a greater awareness of yourself as a mother and leader;  
  • Build a greater awareness of how you interact with dominant norms and assumptions surrounding motherhood and leadership, and how you resist and rewrite these; and
  • Participate in a supportive environment with women going through similar experiences of motherhood and leadership. 

My aim with this research is to make a theoretical contribution to the power and identity dynamics surrounding leadership and embodiment, and a practical contribution to closing the leadership gender gap. Your participation in this research is a show of solidarity with all women as leaders. 

If you are interested in participating in this research please have a read through the Participant Information Sheet and Consent Form, and register your contact details as well as preferred time and location and any child care needed, on this google form*. If you have any questions around this research or your eligibility to participate then please contact me on

Many thanks in advance and I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Amanda Sterling

* Please note, focus group sessions will be organised around you and, in light of the current situation with Covid-19, we are exploring alternative options, which could include doing them online or delaying.

Approved by the University of Auckland Human Participants Ethics Committee on 19th March 2020 for three years.  Reference Number 024314

Dear mums, how do you want to make a meaningful contribution to this world?

Photo by Liv Bruce on Unsplash

Dear mums,

How do you want to make a meaningful contribution in this world? 

One of the most important jobs we have is raising our babies into happy, healthy and successful adults. But the truth is that we’re not always recognised, or valued, for our contributions in this. It often feels like the gravity motherhood, the blood, sweat and tears, get overlooked. Within paid work, if we work long hours, keep that customer happy, and deliver results, we’re applauded, congratulated and acknowledged financially. But if we’re up multiple times a night for an upset child; on the move from when they wake up to when they finally go to sleep; wiping bums and snot; cooking nutritious meals (and watching them throw it on the floor); doing this and more day in and day out, it more often than not goes unacknowledged. 

If your world pre-babies revolved around having a career, it can be hard to find meaning in this unnoticed world of motherhood. But trying to do both, be a mother and work outside the home in order to fill a gap in who we want to be, or who we think we should be, can be fraught with challenges. 

Which of these do you struggle to avoid? 

  • Unconscious judgements about where you should, or shouldn’t be – at home or at work – and how you should or shouldn’t behave – caring and compassionate, and not cold. 
  • A work environment that makes it hard for you to ‘juggle’ child care and domestic home, at the same time as fulfil expectations of success at work. 
  • Pressures you put on yourself to be this great mother AND prove that you’re still as capable and committed as your colleagues, as the person you were before babies. 
  • Gendered expectations about your role in your household; cooking, cleaning, shopping, as well as organising the swimming lessons, the birthday presents…. The mental load list goes on and on. 
  • Uncertainty about who you are now. Are you a mother? A worker? A leader? Do none of these roles fit you perfectly? Do you feel like you should pick just one? If you pick just one, can you feel like you do it well enough? What is enough?

Being a mother is one of the most challenging and rewarding roles we have as women. For me, it’s the one that gives me the most meaning and significance, but at the same time as the most frustration and grief. Not just because of constant negotiation with a toddler hell bent on eating cat food. But because of the inequality that seems to go hand in hand in being a mother. A portion of our lives as mothers gets denied, silenced, or excluded. We still have to assimilate to the status quo culture, or ideals around leadership, in order to fit in, or be respected, valued, acknowledged. It’s a significant reason why women exit the workforce and don’t make it into leadership positions. 

This is not right, or fair, or equal. Our children are not invisible to us. The part of us that makes us mothers should not be invisible. What is at stake here is our inclusion based on our needs, preferences, and skills. Not body count… inclusion. 

Today is International Women’s Day. The theme this year calls for us to “challenge stereotypes, fight bias, and broaden perceptions” (International Women’s Day 2020). In acknowledgement of this day, I’d like to propose something to you. Let’s own who we are as mothers, and step into our potential as leaders. Let’s challenge stereotypes surrounding what gets rewarded and recognised. Let’s unsettle what it looks like to make a contribution to this world. Let’s take back our worth as parents nurturing the next generation. Let’s own who we are as mothers, partners, friends, sisters, workers, leaders, lovers, fighters… women. All of it.

In a practical sense, what can you do right now? As a starting point, you can pause and reflect on three questions: 

  • What could you let go of that doesn’t serve you? 
  • What do you already do that is beautiful and meaningful? 
  • How could you acknowledge and celebrate that more?

If you feel comfortable doing so, please share your thoughts surrounding these questions by commenting on this post. Or simply write your answers down somewhere and use them as guideposts.

Keep doing beautiful things mummas,


Why study motherhood and leadership?

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

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.