Episode 44: The motherhood factor

July 14, 2014

“All of a sudden, all of the things the workplace seemed to accept about these women and that they seemed to accept about the workplace…had been thrown out the window, and they were put under this intense scrutiny as if they weren’t as committed to their jobs as they had been before having kids.” – Rachael Ellison

25 minutes.

For years, motherhood was considered our only job. Today, many women head back to work full-time not long after becoming parents. For some, everything goes smoothly, but for others, the return to work is challenging and confusing: they may not want the same things from their job that they did before, they crave flexibility (and can’t seem to get it), or their employer’s perception of them as a worker has changed – and not for the better.

In this show we look at the transition from worker to worker-parent, find out what companies are doing to accommodate employees, and discuss how overburdened parents can make the pitch for a saner existence.

Ivalo Andreassen with, l to r: Elanor (2) Aputsiaq (2) and Aleksander (4). Ivalo has Alopecia, which causes hair loss.

Further reading:

Flexibility: who wants it, who gets it - my blog post on workplace flexibility featuring Rachael Ellison.

The unspoken fears of maternity leave - my blog post on maternity transition featuring Karen Rubin.

Rachael Ellison is a coach and work/life advocate. She specializes in helping people navigate the twists and turns of working parenthood.

Karen Rubin is managing director of Talking Talent US, a firm founded in the UK by CEO Chris Parke. It works with companies and female employees on maternity transition coaching and on developing the female talent pipeline, which tends to leak in the middle.

Ivalo Andreassen works in sales for a Danish IT company. 



Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show: what happens to a woman’s career when she returns to work after having a baby.  Some women find other people’s perceptions of them begin to change…

“I was quite stressed and then I talked to my boss and she said yeah, it’s because you have all those children, so of course, no wonder you’re getting stressed.”

And making the pitch for flexibility…before you hit a wall.

“As put upon and as burnt out as you might feel, you have to be able to re-frame that for an organization and just make sure you’re not bringing that emotional dump to them, because they’re not going to respond well.”

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We have a packed show this week, with four guests. And I’m tackling a huge topic, one that will touch most women’s lives: the intersection of work and motherhood. More women are working now than ever before, and while some take a short or long career break, many go back right after maternity leave – if you happen to live in the US, that leave is likely to be just a few months long. These women have a new outlook on life, new responsibilities, and some trepidation about how they’re going to manage it all.

Rachael Ellison lives in New York. She’s a career coach who helps parents – mainly women – navigate the challenges of working parenthood.  Her job came about by accident – literally.

“Shortly after my daughter was born I had quite a bad a fall. And I was immobilized for a long period of time. I stared to have some of my friends, my new mom friends, come over and talk about their experiences going back to work.”

And those experiences weren’t great. Coming back to work was a sobering adjustment for many of the women.  

AM-T: Tell me, what kinds of things were they saying? What were they telling you? Did you feel like a therapist?

“I did feel a little bit like a therapist, which was always a secret aspiration of mine. But it was really interesting. I mean people who had these illustrious careers, more than a decade of continuous accomplishment, exceeding goals, new and bigger titles every few years, I mean I remember one friend telling me when she had returned to the workforce, she was made to, at 41, an SVP, was made to fill out a timesheet. Which was something she had never done before, and was sort of scrutinized on that time sheet. Basically, it was as if, it was what Joan C. Williams calls the maternal wall. All of a sudden, all of the things the workplace seemed to accept about these women and that they seemed to accept about the workplace, and the trust that they had earned in these companies, had been thrown out the window - and they were put under this intense scrutiny as if they weren’t as committed to their jobs as they had been before having kids.”

Rachael has a background in organizational psychology – that’s basically the study of human behavior in the workplace – and after she recovered from her accident she began working with these new parents who were finding the workplace so tough.

Something her clients have always craved, in addition to continued trust and respect from employers, is the path to some kind of flexibility – the ability to leave early for a child’s doctor’s appointment, or to come in late after dropping a kid off at school.

Even if a company claims to be all about work/life balance, there are official policies…and there are the people with the power to implement those policies…

“My clients often have fantastic policies at their companies that are available to use. The issue isn’t the policies themselves. The bigger issue is the culture that they work in and the attitudes that their managers have toward taking those policies. And if they’re lucky enough to have a good manager...and often it’s not just the one manager, it’s a managerial team. So even if one person thinks, sure we can take that policy. We care about you, we care about your family, we want you to take advantage, another manager could think no, if she takes advantage of that policy or if he takes advantage of that policy, that’s a sign to me that they’re not serious. That’s the bigger issue.”

AM-T: So that suggests even if these policies are down on paper they’re not necessarily being articulated by - at the individual manger level…

“I would say that’s in the majority of cases that’s exactly the case.”

AM-T: “So this sounds just like the advancement of women within companies as whole. Everyone who works in this space says it will only happen if the top people are on board and pushing it forward…”

“It’s true. As an organizational consultant, I know that you need buy-in from the top tier. But you also need understanding of how to translate those policies and practices in the middle, and I think that’s where these policies get lost. You have people who want them at the bottom or at the lower middle level, and then the middle managers really don’t know how to translate them. Even if they wanted to, they don’t really understand how giving flexibility is really going to help the job they need to get done, get done. And I think they are feeling, like we all are in this economy, a certain sense of insecurity about being accountable for these different initiatives that they have on their plate. So they don’t really want to take the risk in many cases of letting someone take more flexibility with their time.”

AM-T: “And yet from your perspective what is the advantage of letting employees have that flexibility?”

“There’s so many advantages – to productivity, first of all. We are working in a 24/7 overwork culture where there’s no clocks and there’s no walls to how and where and when we work. You need to allow people tend to their needs outside of work in order to be productive employees. If you have an employee who is sitting there worried about one doctor’s appointment that their child has and then they can take care of that and be 200% engaged in the job, then its not really worth it. As one of my colleagues says, you trust your employees to go to a conference in California. And you trust them to get the work done at that conference, they may not working every minute of the day, or networking every minute the day. But you know when you send them, you have the confidence when you send them to the conference in California that they’re going to do their jobs. And we need to have the same attitudes here.”

Treat employees like grown-ups, in other words.

Talking of employers, Karen Rubin works with them on a regular basis. She’s managing director of a company called Talking Talent, which specializes in maternity transition coaching – a term I’d never even heard of till recently.

We’ll talk more about that in a minute. But first I wanted to hear about Karen’s experience. She had two children and a great job at a major satellite TV company, but after her third child was born her childcare situation hit a new low. She was worn out, and at the same time her company was offering buyouts. She took one. Her husband earned enough to support them all, so like plenty of other women in the same position, she quit work and went back home.

“But what I didn’t realize when I stepped off was that it was going to be so difficult to return. And this is the story that’s so very common. You figure oh, I have this stellar resume…I’ve worked at these great companies, I’ve been to these wonderful schools, I have these degrees. It’s going to be easy for me when I decide to come back. And it wasn’t.”

And that’s what Talking Talent tries to remedy, by keeping women from leaving the workforce in the first place. The company works with pregnant employees and their employers to make sure each party is talking to the other about what they want when the woman comes back – and after she comes back, when her wants may have totally changed. Karen says the problem is some women quit out of exhaustion and frustration after they have a child or two, but no one’s talking about any of it while it’s going on. She says women are afraid to admit they’re struggling or appear any less committed to their work. And HR staff - in the US at least - are afraid of being sued if they ask questions. Karen says her company works with both parties to keep lines of communication open.

“Everybody’s different. Some women might want to have a conversation about doing work that for instance involves less travel in the future. Or maybe somebody wants to make sure that everybody knows that as soon as they’re back from maternity leave they want to continue up that ladder in full force. But if they don’t have the conversation then others may make assumptions about what they might want.”

And they do. They can also make assumptions about what you’re capable of.

I told Karen I thought most workplaces still weren’t that comfortable with the whole idea of employees as mothers of young children, despite having had women workers for decades now…

 AM-T: “Maternity…it’s just this key thing about what women do, right? They have babies. And there’s such a stark difference between that and the softness and the nurturing that goes with having a child, and the culture of the workplace, and I think maternity is still associated with softness and in a way weakness…you know, it doesn’t mesh with a hard-charging workplace.”

“You’re absolutely right. I was just speaking with a potential client. We were talking about the need for maternity coaching. And they said well if an employee chooses to have a child, why should the company use any of its resources to pay for any of this? Couldn’t that person just get a therapist? So I think there is an attitude out there that this is a choice that people make and why burden the company?”

AM-T: What did you say?

“Well what I said is you know, you’re hiring people. And people often choose to have families, and…they’re human, and isn’t that what’s great about your human resources, your employees, it’s not just the hours they’re in the office doing the work, but they have lives. There are children, there are people who are juggling eldercare, there are people who are training for marathons…there are people who are choosing to go back to school. We have lives outside of the office. And I think it’s very shortsighted to say that all we care about are the hours that you are in this office.”

Obviously, not all companies fall into that category of drawing strict lines between work and the rest of life. I corresponded with several women in the US about their experiences with their companies. One was a vice president at a company that actually caters to children – she has more flexibility now she has a child, and says everyone at the firm supports her and all the other parents. Another woman co-runs a family business and works reduced hours while her children are still young. Although she did say that initially caused some disgruntlement among the staff.

But Rachael Ellison says many women are working for managers of a different generation…who did things quite differently with their children…

“So one person who is a VP at a large company heard, the person above her, the SVP, she asked her, she knew she wanted to have three kids and she knew that this woman had had three kids, so she said, ‘How do you do it?’ You know, that dreaded question, how did you do it? She said it was really easy, you just need a daytime nanny, a nighttime nanny, a cook, and a housekeeper. And those are the four things you need, and you’ll be set. And for her, forget the financial implications of that, that was not quite what she’d envisioned for working parenthood. That’s not what she wanted.”

She spoke to another woman, a lawyer, just recently. This woman was about to go back to work at her law firm and she had a 5-month-old little girl.

“She said, 'Before my daughter was born I thought I lived in a very egalitarian relationship. I thought I was poised for career success. I was just really on the right track. And having this baby, I now feel this intense pull to be with her and to be her primary caregiver, and I feel like my entire foundation has been rocked. Just the idea that everything I thought I understood about myself and the world now doesn’t seem to be true.'”

She was still coming to terms with that.  

But this is all part of Rachael’s work – helping parents see possibilities in their work and family situations, paths to flexibility that maybe they can’t see on their own.

“What I help people understand is sort of develop their social intelligence around these things. How they frame these conversations, how they present themselves. It’s certainly a delicate balance, but I think being able to recognize what it is that gives you added value in this job and being able to frame it that way…I mean it’s about making a business case for yourself at the end of the day. And you have to be consistently doing that. If you make it about anything else, any personal need, the employer’s going to understand it that way and they’re not going to take it seriously. So it’s about constantly reminding yourself that as put upon and as burnt out as you might feel, you have to be able to reframe that for an organization and just make sure you’re not bringing that emotional dump to them, because they’re not going to respond well. “

Rachael Ellison.

Now one thing you’ll have noticed about Rachael and Karen is that of course…they’re women.

Meet Chris Parke – a man in a woman’s world. He founded Talking Talent in the UK almost 10 years ago. At the time he was working as a coach at various corporations and he noticed time and again that women hit pressure points at work after having a child that men did not. Many of these women ended up leaving the company. And the senior ranks remained full of men.

He’s been on a mission to change that ratio.

“What frustrates me a little bit is still the lack of engagement of men, and quite often I find myself talking to women's networks or to conferences where the audience is predominately female, so it feels a little bit like we have a good energy in the room but we’re actually preaching to the converted here. And actually we need some of these male senior leaders to be in the room and engaging in the topic and having a good debate about it and really taking some ownership of it.”

I couldn’t help wondering how you achieve that.

AM-T: “Like you, I will go to a conference or an event that admittedly has a title such as ‘women in the workplace’ or a ‘SHE Summit,’ which as one man at that recent conference pointed out, he said it doesn’t exactly scream male involvement…so how do you get men interested in this topic and advocating for gender balance?”

“Yeah, it’s such an important question I think Ashley, because there is something around the language we use and how we label conferences and some of the language in the diversity and inclusive environment is not very…”

Well, it’s not very inclusive…

“Yeah, because you come up with this vernacular that some people don’t understand. I really vividly remember when I first launched Talking Talent just how exposed I felt when I was first talking to all female if not predominantly female audiences. And part of that was that I felt that I was going to say the wrong thing…”

Despite years of observation in his earlier coaching job, despite his thesis at business school being about the issue of women quitting the workforce before they got to the top…he was terrified of putting his foot in his mouth. And some of those women made it very clear they thought he had no right to be there. What on earth did he know about what they were going through?

But he insists it’s vital to get more men involved…

“One of the ways we’re trying to do that is initially get all-male circles, talking circles or focus group or round table discussions, because what we’re finding is within those all-male environments they don’t feel so exposed when they’re asking the stupid question or they’re making an observation that may be close to the wire.”

AM-T: “And how’s that going for you? I can’t imagine there are that many men who would want to be part of a circle.”

“Well you’d be surprised actually. What I’m seeing and hearing is there are a lot of men in senor roles who really get this. There are a younger generation particularly coming through organizations who really want the organization to change, and for many of them that involves there being a far greater diversity of gender, ethnicity, of leadership style, of all sorts of things. So they are taking it really seriously. But I think many of them just don’t know how to make a difference.”

And finally to a country a lot of us think of as having achieved balance between the sexes: Denmark. It routinely wins happiest country polls, and has about 25 percent of women in senior roles as opposed to the US’s 20 percent. It also has state-funded childcare for babies and young children.

Ivalo Andreassen is a Broad Experience listener who lives in Denmark. She’s 32, married with three children, a 4-year-old boy and 2-year-old twins, a girl and a boy. Unlike the US, the only country in the developed world without any official paid maternity leave, Danish mothers get a year’s leave, some of that paid. Virtually all mothers return to work straight after their leave ends.

“Everybody here in Denmark usually have to work. You cannot be supported by just one parent working. So the children are in daycare. And I’ve been in daycare too when I was a child. It’s just quite common.”

Denmark has a pretty high cost of living and taxes are high too—although Ivalo’s not complaining. She and her husband pay about a third of the cost of daycare while the government pays the other two-thirds. Ivalo says most women take that whole year of maternity leave. But she found being at home with the twins tough. She adores her children but she says she craved adult company and adult stimulation.  She went back to work early by Danish standards – and that caused consternation among her colleagues.

“Yeah, when I started after the twins were 6 months old the other women at work were asking me how can you leave your babies when they were just 6 months old…and I just, I just told them it was best for me to do it like this and then it’s best for the children.”

She doesn’t torture herself about what she quote ‘should’ be doing.  She says if she’s content, her kids are happy too.  

“But also my husband stayed at home for two months and took care of the babies and then started them in daycare.”

Her husband is a nurse. She says he was treated like a hero for taking those two months of paternity leave.

“People were like, oh, he’s such a great father. And he is. I’m not saying – he’s a great father. He is really a good husband and a great father. But nobody told me I was a good mother when I was at home with the babies. I was just a mother.”

Her return to work was difficult, but not because she was being sidelined in any way.

“I got stress. I was not sick but I was quite stressed and then I talked to my boss and she said, yeah, because you have all those children, so no wonder you are getting stressed. Usually we work 37 hours a week. And she said, you should maybe work 32 hours instead, because of course you’re getting stressed with all those children. And actually later, just now when I have my new job, I found out I think it wasn’t the children that stressed me, it was the poor work environment.”

When she went back to work at that job after her maternity leave, Ivalo says she’d sort of forgotten about how she didn’t fit in there. It was a very rules-bound place, she says, and she…well she’s a lot more creative and spontaneous than her office was. She ended up leaving that job this year. She says motherhood has helped her make decisions about her career.

“So now I just kind of know that I have to do what I want to do to be happy because nobody will do it for me. I think that’s what helped, being a mother, because it helped me focusing on what I like to do and what I’m good at and then trying to stay away form the things I don’t like to do. Because there’s so little time.”

She’s switched focus from internal communications, where she worked with a lot of other women…to sales at a new company.

“I work in a IT company. And we are 4 women out of 45 men. So that maybe says it all. And the day I was hired there was another woman hired and before that there was only 2 women at the company. So we quite made the difference.”

And she likes it – she likes being surrounded by somewhat nerdy guys who she says are totally into their jobs – it makes a refreshing change.

“And I have a very good boss now who thinks it will be very good to have some women working with the men, the IT people at the companies, and I think he’s right.”

Ivalo Andreassen. You can see a picture of her and her kids under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com. You can also comment there or on the Facebook page.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

Next time on the show: men, women and communication at the office.

That’s coming up a bit later in the summer.

Thanks so much to those of you who’ve reviewed the show on iTunes. If you haven’t, and you like what you hear, please consider adding your voice. And you can also support the show by visiting our sponsor at ForeignAffairs.com/broad.

Thanks to April Laissle for her help in getting this episode put together.

And if you’re a new listener, remember there’s a whole library of shows just waiting to be heard. Check out episode 7 about race in the workplace and episode 12 about life for female entrepreneurs in Kenya.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.