A recent article on McKinsey&Company featuring lessons from Joanne S Lublin, author of Power Moms resonates deeply with me, both in my personal and professional life.
Professionally, it is interesting for me that the experiences of the 86 executive mothers reflect many of the experiences that have been discussed on our women in the world of work platforms at Womaniko Transforming Spaces. During the COVID lockdowns women used the New Normal Series to express the Overwhelm they were experiencing and the frustrations in navigating social norms within their households to negotiate space and time for work and family responsibilities. We used these spaces to help women share coping tools and examine the pressures they were facing. As the world reopened, we ran the ReImagine Series for women to discuss the ways to re-enter the world of work and hold on to some of the gains of remote work.
One key realisation was that the challenges are systemic, structural and reinforced by social norms. So women began to explore how to work together and advocate for change, and this saw the birth of the #Dare2SeeUs campaign. In this campaign we draw from personal experiences to identify the systemic changes that are required, while we continue to share coping tools. This journey over the past 2 years has helped us to identify some of the key levers for systemic change, the work that can be done in organisations and the work that women can do individually and collectively. It has redefined our services and products, and we will be sharing our work via a 6-part podcast series in partnership with Talenttalks at the end of this month. It is affirming to hear that we are not misaligned and if these are the experiences of women at all levels, it is imperative that workplaces begin to do this work more deliberately.
We do not just advocate for deeper gender transformative work by women and in workplaces; but also apply this within our own organisation. The advent of the term “work-life sway” affirms our practices within Womaniko; practices that have become more valuable as staff face mental well-being issues, family care issues and bereavements in the pandemic context. These practices include deliberate check-ins that carry into conversations of how to manage workloads and deliverables. We also deliberately practice work-life sway and allow staff time when life interferes. This requires the fostering of deep trust amongst colleagues and often a sensitivity to the different cultural norms we live by.
But what does that look like when an organisation still has to deliver? It looks like sharing workloads and negotiating with clients to shift deliverables and timeframes. It also looks like showing up to work as a team when there are time crunches. It has impacted on our organisational development, how we structure our teams and what training and support we provide. It has also seen us spend much more time together as a team; we now have monthly sessions to connect, think together and do skills development. None of this has been easy for a small enterprise run and staffed by Black women. One day I will write another thought piece on the challenges and biases that we have faced.
For this discussion, there are some important lessons that I can share.
- From an organisational perspective, we have learned that we cannot see the change and benefits of doing deep gender transformative work without changing organisational structures and practices. This is interesting because most gender equality initiatives at workplaces focus on policy change and empowering women. We want things to change, but we don’t want to change our organisations that systemically and structurally perpetuate gender inequality.
- As leaders we have also had to change. We have had to tackle our own beliefs about performance and value, putting in deliberate practices that challenge conventional organisational practice. This has been hard work as we think about how we model better practices for our employees and other women in the world of work. We always share on our platforms that we are not asking women to do work that we have not done ourselves. I, for one, have started working with a coach to challenge lifelong beliefs and behaviours that have informed my performance ethic, self-esteem, imposter syndrome and work addiction. I have had to learn to speak up, be vulnerable, honour myself and request that others do the same. I cannot expect my junior staff to buy into speak out culture or invest in their well-being if I do not model this.
- I have also realized that younger work entrants may have more confidence and be better educated, but they are not equipped with the emotional skills at universities for building relationships in the workplace and owning their own development, growth and well-being. Our junior staff have been equally challenged by the changes and struggle to align their concept of what the world of work requires and these new practices. They are afraid to say no; they are afraid to say I don’t know. Yet this boundary setting and speaking up are exactly the skills that they need to navigate the world of work in ways that affirm them as young women. This is why workplaces must create spaces to hear the intersectional challenges young women face and provide programmes that allow them to be the change they want to see. Peer mentoring and reverse mentoring programmes allow culture change to filter into an organisation without sharp breaks or conflicts.
On a personal level, as a single mother of five amazing children, I am relieved to see the recognition of the motherhood penalty. This is not to advocate for a whole new spate of initiatives focused on single mothers; but rather to listen to their experiences and draw lessons that can support all mothers. My sister always reminds me that many married or partnered mothers still experience many aspects of single motherhood. By examining the extreme experiences of single mothers, we can begin to get to grips with the care burden that mothers carry and tackle the social norms that perpetuate this.
While some answers may lie in investment in childcare services; some are as simple as balancing childcare responsibilities within families. This is easier said than done because the care burden is upheld by social norms. Despite this, I believe that workplaces can play a critical role in challenging these norms and building better norms with all that we have learned from the COVID pandemic. I was relieved to see the Women’s Empowerment Principles advocating for men to be challenged on how they are contributing to care work at home during remote work. I was equally relieved to see men enjoying new experiences of engaging with their children during lockdowns and wanting to continue to play a bigger role in childcare. This talks to some of the work that can be done with men in the world of work and through the significant power and resources that workplaces have.
Finally, as we close this month of May, I too reflect on the role my own mother has played in my working life. I live with my mother, and she provides a solid foundation for my children when I travel for work. She has done this courageously, critically and lovingly as I have hit the grind to build a small enterprise. This sometimes looks like helping with resources when clients haven’t paid on time; other times it looks like having someone to talk through my challenges with. Sometimes in frustration she has asked why I can’t just get a regular job, but in the end, she always steps in to help and hold space. I love that Lublin talks about generational wisdom and recognizes the role that grandparents can play in supporting working mothers. I always remind my mother, that I am exactly who I am because she is who she is. I hope that I too will have such an impact on my own daughters. Because working mothers matter for daughters, research has shown that these daughters are also likely to go into employment and leadership. Working mothers are indeed the change they want to see.