The role and potential of women in the workplace is a very hot topic these days, with the Government, employers and women’s groups all working together to remove some of the obstacles which can and have restricted career progression.
All of this is great news, and should mean that more and more women are able to progress to senior roles in a multitude of organisations …. if that is what they choose. There is ample evidence that organisations function better, both financially and culturally, when there is a strong gender balance at Board and senior levels – so why are we so far away from achieving that?
It’s a huge question – and there are bookshelves of literature, well researched and well argued which try to answer it …. all I can add is a personal perspective, which probably seems like ancient history!
Twenty years ago, I was newly married, desperate to get promoted and feeling rightly indignant at some of the attitudes about women, motherhood and maternity leave which were prevalent.
I was also about to become pregnant – and utterly determined to prove the ‘old fashioned’ views wrong. During my pregnancy I worked as hard as ever, and while I adored the 6 months off with my new baby, I was determined this would not hold me back. I vividly remember attending a full day of competitive assessment for a promotion while still off work – leaving my Mother looking after my baby daughter (who was still being breast-fed) in a hotel nearby!
My commitment paid off, I was promoted and set about ‘having it all’, enjoying balancing work with motherhood and family life – and while lots of it was not ideal and filled with compromise – it did seem to work at the time. All that changed with the arrival of our second daughter who had some health problems that were impossible to navigate with two parents working full time. I sobbed as I admitted to my boss that I couldn’t continue, and feared that my career had ended at the ripe old age of 30.
However, the need to prioritise differently provided liberation from the constraints of corporate train tracks, and after a brief period understanding and managing my daughters’ health, I was ready to head back into the fray. The truth was and is that I enjoy working and while my family will always come first – that doesn’t have to mean a lack of focus, commitment or achievement at work.
I did take a change in direction – one with less travel, which allowed me more control over my diary, and funnily enough, one which I found I enjoyed even more and was well rewarded for doing so. The only hiccup came very early on – when I ‘discovered’ that I was unexpectedly pregnant for a third time – during my third week with a new employer in a new sector! You could say the timing wasn’t ideal ……! When I asked to have a quiet word with my boss …. she later told me that she was so relieved I wasn’t resigning that maternity leave seemed a breeze!
Ten years ago, after a decade combining motherhood and employment – I left corporate life again and co-founded a new business with my very understanding boss and now friend. We have enjoyed building a successful business and team which has also allowed us to genuinely balance home life, outside interests and doing a great job for our clients.
I hope some of the compromises that I, and many of my peers made in prioritising work over family in the early years, while latterly demonstrating that in actual fact those compromises are not always necessary mean that my daughters and their peers don’t have to smash quite so many barriers as they navigate their own career paths.