The Mother’s Load In The Workplace

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31 January 2023

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As we hit the ‘going back to school’ week thousands of mums around the country are gearing up to align their working lives with their home lives. But why should it be so hard and why should it be just mums? Executive coach Emma Mclean found herself so fired up about this issue she left a successful corporate career to agitate for change. 

When Emma Mclean worked in corporate strategy 25 years ago she was deeply into her job. It was her first career and she was a hard worker. Committed, loving the challenge that an interesting job throws at you and aspiring to roles in senior leadership she was bewildered to reach groundhog day when her career also happened to coincide with motherhood and the arrival of three adored and much wanted children. It was a shock, she says, to realise that although the 21st century had seen advances in many things the stalling of women’s careers due to ‘pregism’ was still just that. A stalling.

Emma started noticing a trend amongst her peers as they became mums. “They would gradually and slowly “off-ramp” as she puts it “ they would put themselves into more junior roles, less people leadership or out of the workforce altogether.”

Of course working and running a family is hard and on a level Emma could understand why this was happening but at the same time as she started to get curious she was also fatigued by the lack of progress of women into senior leadership roles. She left her corporate career, retrained to become a professional certified executive coach and started her business ‘Works For Everyone’.  Literally as the saying goes she became the change she wanted to see in the world. Her indemand services support women to hold their course during the middle and toughest part of their career and has seen her be the recipient of the Jaguar’s ‘She Sets the Pace’ grant last year. A grant which provides funding for people challenging conventions.  Those conventions Emma is busy dismantling include women doing the lion’s share of the unpaid caregiving and housework at home, not setting boundaries or being able to say no and not putting their oxygen mask on first.  

The Motherhood Penalty

The Motherhood Penalty is the penalty that only mothers face when they become parents. It is the systemic handicaps in the workplace from paygaps to discrimination as they return to employment from having a baby.  Mothers earn 12.5 per cent less than fathers of the same age and education over the years and the gap is even wider for Pacifica and Māori mothers.

When Emma takes on working mother clients she says she coaches them to “quieten down the guilt” they can feel about insisting on their own needs.

“I create the space for them to figure out how they are going to build a career and have a family.” she says  “ Space that helps them to back themselves to continue to progress their career …Space that helps them to ask for what they need with no justifications. Full stop. Silence.”

Most importantly, she wants to see the normalisation of Working Dads being able to leave at 3pm for pick up, work in a part time role and being the person that takes children to medical appointments. 

“Only when we have equality at home will we have it at work” She says emphatically.

Her coaching has been described as “punchy, practical and peppered with laughter” and this is an accurate description of who she is as a person. A firecracker with sparkles. A funny friendly woman with compassion and a brisk sense of the rightness of things. If she were a matron in a hospital the floors would glean and the nurses would sing. She is someone who gives the impression that work is important but not if there’s no fun. Asked how she maintains her own work/life balance she says

“ A walk everyday at 6am is a key part of it. Walking alone, with no headphones, in nature, is my meditation for the day. The phrase “win the morning, win the day” certainly holds true for me. I listen to music a lot and I dance around to it. I have even been known to dance in the supermarket aisles while searching for Crunchy Nut cornflakes. 

Not only does Emma work with mothers but she takes on employers asking the hard questions such as Where are the part time roles? Where are the job shares? How do you support your working parents during the school holidays? What provision do you have for sick leave for working parents? When will both parents be eligible for paid parental leave, not just the mother? 

Motherhood should not be a roadblock in your career. The roadblocks are the conventions we still persist with even though they don’t work for us. Currently too many women are facing too little choice forcing them to either work part time or not at all. The same has never been said about fathers. The more we agitate for change the easier it will become. 

Emma’s top 5 tips for women returning to work 

  1. Know what your strengths are and be able to talk about them. When we return to work we can have a confidence wobble. Being clear on what our strengths are can give us an instant confidence boost.
  2. Find your people. Find people you can talk to about the feelings that come up for you when returning to work. People that help you feel like you are not alone and that you belong.
  3. Ask for what you need. The people around us do want to help us. But we need to tell them what we need. Whether that is asking your manager to not call you after 8pm or asking your partner to own meal shopping and prep – think about what you need and ask for it.
  4. Put your own oxygen mask on first. Whatever this means for you – do it. Take responsibility for yourself. For some people, self-care looks like nutritious meals, for others it might be a daily walk and for others it might be a movie night with girlfriends. Figure it out and make it happen.
  5. Hold your course. Returning to work is a rollercoaster. There will be ups and downs. The important thing is to remain on the ride. Ronan Keating sang it best when he said “life is a rollercoaster, you just got to ride it”.  

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