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Making it work: motherhood and career

Posted on August 28, 2013

Imagine a “female Paradise on earth”, where women succeed alongside men, where women have equal access to the most senior positions and where gender segregation is a thing of the past. That Paradise is right here, right now according to Alison Wolf, author of ‘The XX Factor: How Working Women are Creating a New Society’, but only if you are a high earner.

About 15-20% of women in developed countries fall in this group, which combines higher education, good incomes and prestigious occupations. However, in order to facilitate the success of these women, there has been an increased need for lower-paid jobs in the areas of childminding, cleaning and caring. It is the other 80% of women that fill these and other traditionally female roles and for them, argues Wolf, not a lot has changed in the last forty years.

Wolf doesn’t explore the financial freedom that comes from having a job, any job, nor does she seem that interested in the middle-income earners – the teachers, the nurses, the social workers. Instead, she concentrates on the similarities in the lifestyles of elite professional men and women and shows how much they have diverged from the lifestyles of everyone else.

Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, does not share Wolf’s optimism towards women at the top. In her book, ‘Lean In’, and her much-lauded TED Talk, ‘Why we have too few women leaders’, Sandberg discusses the fact that women are not making it to the top of any profession, anywhere in the world. Only 13pc of those in parliament throughout the world are women, while only 15pc of board members are female (in Ireland this is a shocking 9pc). Even in the non-profit world, an area traditionally associated with women, only 20pc of those at the top are women.

Orla O’Connor, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), says that companies need to take seriously the fact that they have a complete imbalance of women at senior level. This may well be forced upon them as the European Commission has proposed legislation with the aim of attaining a 40pc representation of women in non-executive positions on the boards of publicly listed companies. “We believe that this will actually help as well in terms of women being more likely to be promoted”, adds O’Connor.

O’Connor says that out-of-school-hours childcare is a huge issue for working mothers. “Lots of women say that they thought the most difficult period would be paying for the crèche but actually it’s when children hit school age and trying to manage the school hours, the holidays, mid-term breaks with working life.” She says that in countries with good provision, it is very connected with school. “If we look at the Scandinavian model, everything is quite seamless, whereas here in Ireland, it’s a huge juggle.”

So what factors and supports allow some mothers to continue their careers while others have to compromise or give up entirely?

Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women is threefold; firstly she discusses how women tend to underestimate their abilities while men do the opposite and urges women to ‘sit at the table’ with their male counterparts. Next, she stresses that a woman needs to make her partner a real partner when it comes to sharing childcare and household chores. Finally, Sandberg says that you shouldn’t ‘leave before you leave’. This refers to the fact that women can tend to lose focus on their careers as soon as they become pregnant or even when they are thinking about having a baby.

Joanna Donnelly attributes her success to a flexible employer and a supportive partner who works in the same role as she does. Joanna and her husband, Harm, are both meteorologists with Met Éireann and have three children.

“As a public service company, we are lucky in that we have a lot of the benefits of statutory things like parental leave, work sharing, time sharing, flexitime”, says Joanna, “and all of those things do really add to a good work-life balance for most people.” In addition, Joanna and Harm work on the same roster and organise their shifts so that one parent is at home most of the time. “We get our rosters a month in advance and I look and see where our shifts clash and I’ll take parental leave where I can on those days so I don’t work them at all.”

Joanna has a degree in maths and met Harm while she was doing her professional training with the British Met office. Within a few years, they were married with a child. “I always knew I’d never stop working”, says Joanna. “It never, ever crossed my mind to give up work.”

Joanna was able to use both her parental leave and Harm’s to take an additional year off after her third child was born. “While I was on maternity leave, I was perfectly happy. During the second year, when Harm was going off to do my job, I found that hard. There was very interesting weather at the time and I was missing it all.” For Joanna, her career is far more than a means to an end. “I would do my job for free – it’s a hobby.”

Abby Wynne has a similar passion for her work. “I can’t ever see myself stopping work. I’m not planning on retiring and if I won the lottery, I would still continue to do what I do because it’s what drives me.”

Abby works as a psychotherapist at the Ranelagh Holistic Centre, a business that she owns. Abby already had a degree in zoology, a Master’s degree in marine biology and a career in science and multimedia when she returned to college to study for a degree in psychotherapy. At that stage, she had a full-time job, two children and was pregnant with her third.

Abby’s husband, Ian, also the holder of a Master’s degree, has stayed at home with the children since their second was born. “There’s no way I’d have been able to do it without Ian at home”, says Abby. “Between all the work I had to do and the kids starting school and school holidays and sick days, you’d want to have a parent at home.”

Now with four children, Abby and Ian feel validated by the the choices they have made. “We live with the philosophy that you don’t save up for the two weeks of the year when you go on holiday”, says Abby, “because life is now and you want your life now to be fulfilling.”

Dorothy Kelly, a senior manager at Google, works full-time as does her husband, Eoin. Their two young sons are at creche and after-school daycare and Eoin picks them up every evening so that Dorothy can stay on at work. “It makes a huge difference to my working day”, she says, “not to have that panic at the end of the day.”

Dorothy’s experience of employer flexibility has been positive and says it can often depend on whether the manager is a parent or not. “If they have children themselves then generally they know the score and are pretty flexible about it.”

As a manager, Dorothy has seen no evidence that working mothers are not as committed to their jobs as anyone else. “I think the days of people thinking that mothers are not as strong contributors in the workplace are over”, she says. “People tend to come back from maternity leave with gusto.” However, she still thinks that maternity leave can hurt a woman’s career. “I did feel that I would have been promoted more quickly if I hadn’t taken time off.”

Dorothy feels that parents should have the option of sharing maternity/paternity leave. “I wholeheartedly believe we should do the Scandinavian model where those months can be shared between the two parents”, she says. “Myself and Eoin are both parents and I’m never the default if the kids are sick – we share it equally and it should be the same with maternity leave.”

Paternity leave is something that the NWCI is advocating. “The fact that we don’t have father’s leave in Ireland sends out a very clear message as to who should be the primary carer”, says Orla O’Connor. The NWCI is also seeking a publicly subsidised model of childcare and the right to request flexible working conditions.

We may not have a female Paradise in Ireland but with the right supports, we can have an equal share of what’s on offer.

By Fiona McPhillips. First published in the Irish Independent on 20 August 2013.

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