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Ask a woman what she wants

Ziena Jalil takes the opportunity on International Women's Day to offer some advice on how we can empower mothers in the workplace

“You won’t want to go to Hong Kong now you are pregnant.” I still recall the words of a senior colleague when I was pregnant with my first child and considering an exciting regional role.

Throughout the world, women’s plight and successes will be highlighted today. While we often talk about the glass ceiling, the maternal wall is just as real, and even more challenging. Judgments and assumptions are made daily about what women want when they become mothers.

Motherhood enhances many skills useful for the workplace – patience, organisation, negotiation, budgeting, multi-tasking, coaching, the list goes on. Others can, of course, also bring these strengths. But it is mothers who are penalised for taking time to care for their children.

A Harvard Business Review study found mothers were 79 percent less likely to be hired than a woman without children. A mother was half as likely to be promoted as a childless woman, was offered less in salary, on average, and was held to higher performance and punctuality standards. This is discrimination much larger than what is found in the context of a glass ceiling.

Women’s salaries fall when they became mothers, but pay bias doesn’t affect fathers. In fact, fathers make more money than their childless male counterparts.

We need to start empowering mothers in the workforce, Here is how.

Embrace technology. Technology has enabled telecommuting in a transformative way. This can be the difference between working full-time or not, returning to work or not.

Flexibility works both ways. Employers who are keen to have staff work longer when needed shouldn’t quibble at requests from staff to leave early once in a while. Flexibility also means taking a creative approach to how work is bundled and assigned.

Family-friendly workplaces support a healthy organisational culture. While it may be unsafe or impractical to allow children into some workplaces, there are many where children, if supervised, will be perfectly fine for periods of time. During the last teachers’ strike, several employers allowed staff to bring their children to work. Some organisations have found creches at work help to increase productivity as employees aren’t stressed about their children’s wellbeing.

Similarly, being able to breastfeed or pump breastmilk at work without any stigma can make a huge difference to how many women feel about going back to work. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern showed this at the highest level – taking her baby to the UN General Assembly, and creating history.

Provide support networks. A large number of women need to take time off work at some point in their career. Workplaces that have mentors and other support networks in place for these women before they take time off are better placed to support their re-entry into work.

Avoid judgment. I took up significant roles in my career, which required relocation to a different country, when pregnant with my first child and then again when I had just given birth to my second child. Each time I took 10 weeks' parental leave. Many people told me I wasn’t taking enough time off. Others said I was crazy to be getting pregnant when my career was going places. Every woman, every family, is different and judgments are simply unnecessary.

Have gender-neutral leave policies which don’t promote childcare as a mother-only responsibility. This enables the other parent to take time off to attend to a child without feeling uncomfortable doing so.

Remove the stigma associated with non-standard work arrangements. Ensure part-timers receive training, development and promotion opportunities in the same way as other staff.

It is often an organisation’s culture which makes mothers feel undervalued and not trusted. Unspoken rules about management likes and dislikes can have greater impact than what policies say.

A Harvard study found that women whose mothers worked outside the home are more likely to have jobs themselves, more likely to hold supervisory responsibility, and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full-time. It also found that men raised by working mothers are more likely to contribute to household chores and spend more time caring for family members.

It's time our workplaces also recognise the contribution of mothers. Don’t assume that time off to have a child means a woman doesn’t have ambition or that working fewer hours or remotely will affect the quality of her work. Ask a woman what she wants.

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