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?
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: https://diversityworksnz.org.nz/media/3543/0419-diversity-survey-hr.pdf Retrieved 19th June 2019.