Tag Archives: Motherhood

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, https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

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 http://www.stats.govt.nz.

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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism

From Motherhood to Leadership

In 2019 I begin my PhD. It’s going to take me 3-4 years.

I propose to bring together three streams of research; learning, leadership, and feminine studies, to understand, and make recommendations around, how to better design leadership development programs for women leaders, specifically mothers, and close the gender gap.

We know that women are still underrepresented in leadership positions.

The results of a survey of 705 New Zealand organisations (Diversity Works New Zealand, 2017) reported that, in approximately 20% of organsiations, women make up less than 25% of leadership and governance teams. This is even more so for larger organisations.

The current research around this challenge appears to be siloed. The challenges for mothers returning to work is discussed (e.g. Nichols & Roux, 2004), the opportunities for women to take on leadership roles, and the style in which they do so, is unpicked (e.g. Madsen & Andrade, 2018; Ely et al, 2011). But new insights into the leadership gender gap, and what to do about it, could come from a more holistic and integrated understanding of the home factors affecting return to work, and women’s ability to take on leadership roles.

Research into learning supports this view that understanding performance in role cannot be isolated to one variable. The ‘AMO framework’ (Boxall & Purcell, 2011) argues that all employee performances are a function of employee ability (A), motivation (M), and the opportunity to perform (O). In Sterling & Boxall (2011) we showed that learning could be short-circuited, much like a three-legged stool, where any one of ability, motivation, or opportunity is deficient. I propose that AMO is also a useful lens to apply to the women in leadership challenge.

Kennedy, et al. (2012) argues that leadership development needs to be focused on mindset. Returning to work after becoming a mother is hard and often viewed negatively (Nichols & Roux, 2006). Invariably this is going to affect motivation to lead and any learning that needs to go along with an ability, or mindset, to do so. But current explorations linking leadership and motherhood together are limited to the counselling profession (e.g. Levitt, 2011).

Interventions to address this need to look at the whole system – not just within the box of a leadership development intervention or blanket work/life policies. The manifestation of a negative unconscious bias towards women could result in limited opportunities to apply leadership skills (Madsen & Andrade, 2018). And the positive effects of worklife practices on the proportion of women in management positions was not observed in organisations that were male dominated (Kalysh et al. 2016). The opportunities for women to lead are still limited.

But we now get to the crux of this challenge. What is the specific leadership value that women, particularly mothers, bring to our organisations? And, therefore, do we need more of them? Billing and Alverson (2000) point out that ‘feminine’ leadership traits are not necessarily the ideal for our organisations – in particular those that value a drive for results over relationship building. So is this more about a paradigm shift in how our organisations operate? “The most important role of leadership development is to renew the leadership concept so that it reflects the new challenges, changes, and strategic directions that organisations face” (Probert & James, 2011). Personally, I’d like to think that there is untapped value in mothers to lead. But do they even want to in the current context?

I’ve just scratched the surface of the research into the multiple variables at play here. It’s a precarious balance between leadership and motherhood; the leadership abilities needed to step up, the motivation to participate with everything else going on in a mother’s life, and the opportunity to do so within the organisational context.

The immensity of the life shift that comes from becoming a parent could be better appreciated. It’s something I have very fresh and first hand knowledge of; becoming a mother, and navigating the significant psychological shift that comes along with that, then returning to a very ‘masculine’, results orientated corporate environment. Alongside my own experience, I see my peers – women / mothers of the same age and stage – leaving the workforce altogether or ‘dumbing-down’ their roles because it’s simply too hard for them to meaningfully contribute. It’s more a case of not wanting it all. I propose to undertake qualitative research that encompases a broad spectrum of systems and structures affecting mothers as leaders, with a view to making recommendations on what could be done differently to close the gender gap.



Billing, Y. and Alverson, M. (2000). Questionning the notion of Feminine Leadership: A Critical Perspective on the Gender Labellng of Leadership. Gender, Work and Organization. 7(3), 144-157.

Boxall, P. and Purcell, J. (2011). Strategy and Human Resource Management, 3rd edn, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Diversity Works New Zealand, (2017). New Zealand Diversity Survey. 2017 Bi-Annual Report – October. Retrieved from: https://diversityworksnz.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/1017-Diversity-Survey-Report_HR.pdf. 4th October 2018.

Ely, R., Ibarra, H. and Kolb, D. (2011). Taking Gender into Account: Theory and Design for Women’s Leadership Development Programs. Academy of Management Learning & Education. 10(3).

Kalysh, K., Kulik, C., Perera, S. (2016). Help or hindrance? Work-life practices and women in management. The Leadership Quarterly. 27. 504-518.

Kennedy, F., Carroll, B., Francoeur, J. (2012). Mindset Not Skill Set: Evaluating in New Paradigms of Leadership Development. Advances in Developing Human Resources. 15(1). 10-26.

Levitt, D. (2011). Women and Leadership: A Developmental Paradox? Adultspan Journal. 9(2), 66-75.

Madsen, S. and Andrade, M. (2018). Unconscious Gender Bias: Implications for Women’s Leadership Development. Journal of Leadership Studies. 12(1).

Nichols, M. and Roux, G. (2004). Maternal Perspectives on Postpartum Return to the Workforce. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing. 33(4).

Probert, J. and James, K. (2011). Leadership Development: Crisis, opportunities and the leadership concept. Leadership. 7(2), 137-150.

Sterling, A. and Boxall, B. (2013). Lean production, employee learning and workplace outcomes: a case analysis through the ability-motivation-opportunity framework. Human Resource Management Journal. 23(3).