Reporting of the gender pay gap seems to be all the rage. With one of the most oft cited reasons being that the majority of senior roles are held by men. Why? Could the reason that there are so few women reaching the top be anything do do with motherhood?
If so, what is it about becoming a mother that derails careers? And what can you do to prevent it?
A high flier, I joined a graduate recruitment scheme with one of the accounting giants. It was 1988. The arguments for equality had been won - or so we thought. I had the same opportunities as my male colleagues and my career flew. Until, that is, I decided I wanted children. Pregnancy for me limited my ability to travel was curtailed. Which meant that I wasn’t available for plum assignments.
Later still, now a mother of two small children and clinging on to my career, albeit now at a junior level to my peers, I found out I wasn’t getting a promotion I expected and my childcare arrangements fell to pieces, all in the same week. “That’s it,” I said to myself, “I’ll look after the children myself, my career can take a break.”
Fast forward five years and I was still on a “break”, unable to return, with children approaching secondary school age and a career that seemed dead and buried.
Deb, whose career was in theatre and the creative arts, had been a lot more savvy and tenacious. When motherhood forced her to forgo an opportunity to work at one of the country’s leading theatres, she set up on her own as a consultant. She hustled her ass off, developed a great offer and built a mighty impressive roster of clients.
Together, we set up She’s Back because we wanted to help women in my situation get back to work. In doing so, we realised that there is much women can do to ensure they don’t find themselves in this position in the first place.
The key: Play the long game. Treat your career and motherhood like an important game of chess.
What do we mean? What does that look like?
It begins by always having a long term goal in mind. Had anyone asked me, when I quit my job, whether that was it for my career, I would have laughed and said, “Of course not.” And yet, I had absolutely no plan. I had no vision for what I wanted to be doing in five years time and less still any idea about how I would make sure I was still an attractive employment proposition.
I also made the mistake of dropping my network immediately. With twenty years experience behind me, I’d built up an impressive roll call of friends and colleagues, many of whom continued to progress and are now in senior positions elsewhere. Luckily for me, it’s never too late, and I’ve been able to reconnect with most people - and most have been willing supporters of She’s Back - but boy have I wasted a lot of time and energy. Don’t just hang on to your network, keep developing it. It’s yours alone and like any set of relationships, it requires attention. It’s how Deb found work as an independent consultant and the reason we have supporters from the creative industries. Essential when you’re building a new brand from scratch.
Motherhood can be challenging - personally, I found looking after toddlers extremely difficult. Simultaneously boring and stressful, my small moments of joy were easily forgotten in the drudgery of the day to day. Understandable, then, that keeping up with industry changes, being on top of new technology and staying abreast of current trends came far down my list of priorities.
My last role was Director of Brand and Communications, but when I decided it was time to return the revolution in social media was in full swing. I wasn’t even on Facebook. Hardly an attractive candidate for your next Director of Communication. Since she had worked with Digital agencies, Deb of course had had to keep on top of this and was able to help when we set up She’s Back and you’ll find us everywhere. Except Snapchat. Still don’t get it.
Being a mother and hanging on to a career is a challenge. But not an impossible one. Keep sight of the long game, have a plan, maintain and develop your network, keep learning, and you will be much better placed to navigate life’s twists and turns.
Motherhood can be tremendously rewarding and the very best thing you may ever do. But being a mother is just one important role you will play in life. Don’t let it define you and don’t let it derail your career forever.
She’s Back: Your Guide to Returning to Work by Lisa Unwin and Deb Khan is published by Urbane Publications.