Working mothers: within the bounds of commerciality, without ‘concessions’

No, I haven’t made a faux pas in the title. I didn’t mean to say “working parents”, and no, I’m not remiss in that. Because it frustrates me when gender pay gaps make the news without being called what they very often really are: a gender representation issue. 

So, I’d love to talk about that, and instead of blaming anyone, I want to express my gratitude for the support that has been invaluable in being able to do what I do. 

To be so bold as to speak for other women at PKF Newcastle and Sydney, it’s because of a key group of really good, supportive, so-called 'straight, white, middle-aged, middle-class men (and women)', who on paper fall (unfairly) bang smack into a 'privilege' classification - and I want to acknowledge the things they actively drive in our business that mean PKF absolutely does have women operating at the top levels, without handing out "mum cards" or "reverse discrimination" or "concessions".

And if you’d like to see more women in senior, high-paying roles even after having children, I’d love to share what I know are some practical, pragmatic, commercial actions.

The gender representation issue occurs when women don't take higher paying, more senior roles, whether by choice or they feel unable or aren't enabled, so are then naturally paid less than those in more senior roles but equivalent to any men in their same roles, in accordance with the roles they fill.

There's so much that can be said on this, right back to root cause, with higher numbers of women in nursing, teaching, childcare, administration - all generally lower-paid roles. I'm not going there today.

What I’m writing about on this occasion is what I am, what I know, and what I feel abundantly qualified to speak on - working mothers in professional services firms. And professional services firms who want to do, and are doing, the right thing. Who do not discriminate salaries based on gender or any other factor for that matter. Who recognise that women can be as good as men at all levels in all roles and want to support them to achieve whatever they seek in their career.

This is what I know and what I'm privileged to have experienced at PKF Newcastle and Sydney.

I know, sometimes, it is gender discrimination. Sometimes, in some firms, a woman in the exact same role as a man is paid less or passed over for promotion. And that is flat out wrong. Those who discriminate on gender are so despicably low and absolutely deserve all the bad press. I'm not trying to pretend that it doesn't occur, or undo and diminish the work of women before me or upset anyone. At the same time, when it truly is an issue of representation, then surely providing practical, realistic, commercial solutions to business owners, executives, decision-makers, line managers is a better solution than simply shaming them for something they're not actually doing? Showing them all the ways that mean they absolutely can have women holding senior positions.

The other point I want to make here is that unconscious bias, or unhelpful action, is not limited to men. Women in decision-making positions can be just as susceptible to these things.

Playing the mum card

A colleague in another division at my firm recently said something to me that simultaneously broke my heart and made me feel proud. He said Stace, I hope you know what I mean by this and I'm not here to cause offence. What I want to say to you, is that if I didn't know you had kids, I wouldn't know. And what I mean by that is, I've never seen you 'play the mum card'. How do you do that, how do you pull it off, and how can we share that?

I instantly knew exactly what he meant, and, while I took no offence, I viscerally rebelled against it.

On the one hand, it reinforced my deep-seated values, the importance I place on work ethic and integrity, and never 'having a lend'. Of earning the right to flexibility, autonomy and understanding, and making sure I always give more than I take.

On the other hand, unfortunately, I know there are people who don't hold high values and who do sometimes "have a lend" and slack off and use any excuse to work less or take it easy or offload responsibility. Most often that's not to do with parenting, and those people will behave that way with anything - illness, study, mental health, "traffic was bad today" etc.

It came up in a conversation with a client recently, who hesitantly suggested that if they introduced a mental health policy that included the ability for people to take a day when they needed it, that people would "take the mickey".

My opinion is the same for that as it is for this: that those people need to be shelved for this conversation, and the issues with them dealt with independently for what they are: performance issues. A lack of worth ethic.

What broke my heart is that there was any kind of association of my ability to do my job well, being considered the opposite of playing a "mum card". This was from a colleague with a family of his own, and a working wife, so it wasn't from a place of ignorance.

I'm hyper conscious of colleagues who fit neatly into the 8:30am to 5pm and available-after-hours mould, who may misconceive flexibility as a free pass to work less, or not as hard.

I'm clear that it's not just working mothers who may need flexibility - my references throughout this piece are to working mothers, because that is what I am, and that is what I know. That doesn't in anyway dismiss or ignore fathers, elder-carers, or anyone else who doesn't fit the mould, by choice or necessity.

What I did respect immensely about his comment was the final question.

"How do you do it, and how can we share that?"

What enables me: what can you do, too

A lot can be done by those who surround the working mother, that costs the business absolutely nothing and requires no concessions. And more than that - will pay dividends for the business.

The reality is, some of the best and hardest workers will want to have families. And pretending they can have it all, and should be able to continue to fit the mould, will cost them too much - both the employee and the employer.

They will burn out, they will lose opportunities with their kids and resent that, their marriage or relationship may be impacted, they will become less effective workers and potentially quit altogether.

People do the best they can with the awareness that they have right.

So, how can businesses and colleagues support working mothers?

1. Support part-time roles

It's often said, women who are busy often make the best employees. I know this, and other people have said the same thing. For this reason and a whole bunch of others, part-time can absolutely work, even for roles that have traditionally been full-time.

Yes, there may be availability issues to address - whether she needs to be available to the team or clients. That can be worked through. Alternatives can be provided. Is anyone always contactable, available? No. Do the people around you survive? Yes. It can be overcome. Be open to the ways around reduced working hours.

2. Support reasonable working from home (WFH) where possible

I WFH one day a week, which saves me an hour of travel, gets more done with less interruptions, and allows me to finish at 3:30pm to pick up the kids and properly spend the afternoon with them. On Mondays, I don't have to choose between work and family, I get to do both.

I also acknowledge full-time WFH would not work for my role, and there are compromises to be made.

3. Respect agreed working times

If a person doesn't work Wednesdays, and you're scheduling something they're expected to be at, pick any other day. 

Would you ask someone to come in on a weekend, for anything but an incredibly exceptional circumstance? No. Why? Because you respect agreed working times. If someone has a working arrangement that is not 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, so we need to respect that too.

If they leave at 4pm, don't book meetings later than 3pm. This goes for the leaders, and their admin team / assistant who might be doing the booking. Please, make it your business to know who works what days and hours. And please don't be offended when someone declines and you need to reschedule. Respect them for staying true to their boundaries.

Please do not think to yourself, 'well it's 'only' a once-off ', because if that person's life is set up to support working agreed days and hours, it will be hard for them to be available. And there will be things that come up that are unavoidable outside of their agreed hours, which they will have to cater for. Please don't put another thing on that list if at all possible.

If you need to book something at a time you think they may not be able to accommodate, do them the respect of asking first. If they say "yes no problem," great. If they even so much as hesitate, be respectful of that and find another time.

I have struggled with this and went through a phase where I would silently accept the meeting request, desperately not wanting to be an inconvenience, and then scramble to book the four year old in for an extra preschool day and the seven year old in for a casual OOSH afternoon, or see if my husband or parents could cover the time, or place a child in front of the TV and dial in remotely. And sometimes that needs to happen. Sometimes things are beyond anyone's control and I'm the one who compromises. And that's okay, as long as it's the true exceptions, and not a frequent occurrence.

It's a huge internal conflict for working mothers, and it’s one those of influence can help eliminate as much as possible.

Anyone who has kids in childcare, whether pre-school age or OOSH, will understand how impossible it can be. It cannot be taken for granted that the kid gets a place, especially as a casual day. And even if family members are able to help out, that can be an unfair ask too.

4. Pick an anchor day for your team or business

This helps make respecting agreed working times, per the above point, much easier.

Thursdays is our anchor day. Everyone is expected, as far as possible, to be in the office. So, if you work part-time, plan to work Thursdays. If you’re planning to WFH, or be out at a client’s, don’t plan for it to be a Thursday. This allows for training days, social events, team meetings etc to be more easily scheduled, and creates a clear and consistent expectation across the team.

5. Support flexible hours

Measure hours and outcomes, both, either, sure. And it's 2024. 45 hours can fit into a week lots of different ways.

I choose to work full-time over four days. I choose to go the gym at 5:45am most days, which means I cannot be in the office before 8:30am and am sometimes late (tough for someone who was always at her desk by 7-7:30am pre-kids. Please be aware that adjustments to working arrangements can challenge both you and the working mothers). And me getting to the office at 8:30am is with my husband doing drop-offs. We choose for him to do drop-offs (which, incidentally means he’s rarely at the office before 9am) and for me to do the afternoon shift, which means I generally leave the office by 4pm to get the kids and be home to do the dinner-homework-bath-bed dance.

It means I then log back on one or more nights per week to keep working. I choose to do that, it gets the hours and the outcomes. Which is a great segue into:

6. Help manage the perception around those who have flexible hours

While still working as hard as everyone else, sometimes the opposite occurs in perception.

A 360 degree survey conducted on me came back with a comment that startled me: "Stacie needs to improve her work/life balance - she clearly has none, because she consistently sends emails at 10pm at night."

I read it 10 times, and sat shocked in my chair for a good 10 minutes, I reckon.

One of my Partners said; "ah stuff 'em, you do you Stace, it's working, you know that and we know that. That’s good enough".

And while that's validating and sometimes useful advice, in this scenario it wasn't. I was acutely aware of the need to manage perception. So, I asked my partners to please help me manage the perception.

I don't want other women to think working at 10pm is what they have to do to be successful. It isn't. It's what I'm choosing to do. Because it largely works for me. And the days it doesn't, I don't.

Ironically, this feedback is one of the things that helped me get loud and proud about the walk of shame as I was leaving (see my next point).

If people see the late night emails, I want them to know it's balanced with leaving early. I want them to know I WFH Monday and log off early to be with my kids. I want them to know I'm not available on Wednesdays, because that's my day with my four year old. I want them to know that I flex my hours ad hoc, to get to kids’ events when I’m able.

7. Help smash the 'walk of shame'

As someone whose identity has been too heavily built on my work ethic, arriving 'late' and leaving 'early' is hard. Excruciatingly hard, and shameful. I've had to fight hard against it.

I used to sneak out quietly hoping no one noticed. I used to work back past the time I knew I needed to leave, and pray that traffic wasn't bad so I wouldn’t be late for pick up. I used to rush the kids of a morning (“come on, come on, quick quick, what are you doing, hurry up please”), setting us all up into a terrible headspace to start the day, in the hopes I could arrive at the office a few minutes earlier. But what for??

Having a team around me who do not book early meetings, and know what time I'm supposed to leave and say kindly "Stace, what're you still doing here", absolutely helps. It gives me permission. It makes others aware. It helps me feel I'm not 'less-than'.

8. Talk about getting enough sleep

This is important for all humans, not just working mothers. So why don’t we talk about it more? It's a thing that causes conflict, about something that wouldn’t have mattered, simply because someone is just tired.

Working too late and getting up early for the gym, for me equals being crankiest of an early evening. That’s right when I'm home with my kids. It's not who I want to be. It's not fair to my kids.

So, I've had to switch it up so that the nights before I'm up early, I'm logged off no later than 9pm, so I'm still asleep by 10pm and getting no less than seven hours sleep, absolute minimum (ideally it's eight).

(As a side note for anyone else struggling with sleep, I do find that if I get a run of really good nights of sleep, I'll often then have one night of just a few hours, despite best efforts. And I was making that wrong, and stressing myself out about it. And losing sleep over it. But I've decided that's normal, and just to roll with it. Just me? And I’ve done a bunch of reading and research, and have found a tactic that works for me.)

9. Watch your unconscious bias

This plays out in a whole bunch of ways.

I'm not judging it - it's "unconscious" because it's unconscious. It's no one's fault. At the same time, if you can become aware of it, you can change it.

When it happens, please allow those around you to gently point it out, without getting all defensive.

  • If you make a crass joke or swear, don't stop and apologise only to me, as the only female in the room
  • When you walk into a meeting and greet everyone, don't assume I, as the female, am there waiting to take your coffee order or take notes
  • If you're in an interview or meeting, don't direct all your responses to my male colleague. One of the funniest things can be when I'm not introduced with my title (and why should I have to be, to be afforded respect, credibility?) and it quickly becomes clear those in the room assume I'm less highly ranked than anyone else in the room (and again, I hate that that matters as much as it does - it's 2024. We're all humans. Care about me regardless of how 'important' you think I am.). And they speak over me or around me to ignore me completely. And then when the realisation dawns of "who I am"... everything changes. Too late, mate. You've done your dash with me, true colours are on display. I understand very clearly where we stand.
  • Don’t mansplain. Enough said.
  • After a meeting, if I start to clear the cups or plates, help me. I'm always going to do it, and it's not because I'm a female - it's because it has to be done, someone needs to do it. And no one is more important than anyone else when it comes to that. It takes 30 seconds to do. Don't awkwardly tell me to leave it, or thank me - just get amongst it, and silently help.
  • If you get to the door first, yes, feel free to hold it open, that’s very considerate, kind and polite. Just don’t make a point of doing it for me. Do it for anyone in your party, whether they are male or female.
  • Be careful of what you might think are ‘innocent questions.’ I was 31 when I had my first child. ‘Old’ by a lot of people’s standards, and I got plenty of questions prior about “when are you having kids” etc, and even “are you having any more”. This can be highly painful and ignorant to ask. I don’t need to talk about people who struggle to conceive or miscarry. Just please, don’t. Be careful of what you might think are ‘innocent questions’

10. Watch your preconceptions and language - ask yourself whether what you're saying to me is something you would say to a Dad, and if you wouldn’t, don’t

It only makes me feel guilty. And makes you look ignorant.

Don’t ask me “so who has the kids?” while I'm at an event outside working hours. Don’t tell me my husband is great for having the kids while I’m out. Don't tell me I'm lucky that he’s happy to “babysit”. Don’t act like the decision to have children was one-sided, and I should be grateful he choses to accommodate.

11. Put the things in your diaries that you do, that make it clear you have responsibilities and activities you choose to do outside work too. Don’t mark them private

Pick up; drop off, kids concerts, assemblies, athletics days, going for a haircut, going to the gym, for a run, whatever, a day of annual leave.

Seeing this openly in other people's diaries has been incredibly empowering for me.

12. Allow space for 'emergencies' - welcome the kids into the office

I did a post on this that went a tiny bit viral on this a while ago. You can read it here:

13. Invest in coaching

Sometimes women need to get out of their own way. My five male partners invest in coaching for themselves, and me, and a bunch of others in our senior leadership team, blind to gender. I'm very happy to provide their names and details for anyone who might be interested: Richard Ford, Helen Wiseman, Kylee Dare, Andrew Hughes amongst them.

I'm also privileged to coach several women in leadership positions with some of our clients.

Everyone has their issues, right? Getting past mine have gone right back to some pretty fundamental things. People pleasing. A society that expects a "good girl" who doesn't ask for anything, does as she's told, sits quietly. Being ‘allowed’ to ask for help. Realising that accepting help doesn’t make me incapable, that being extended an option to do things differently isn’t a concession. Realising I don’t have to work harder than my peers to prove something.

There are plenty of businesses specifically targeting women returning from maternity leave, one who I've been enjoying content from is Emily Ellis at Work Life Baby. But it doesn't have to be that. Any kind of legit business coaching is going to help anyone.

14. Be clear and realistic with your expectations. Don't avoid what you think is an awkward conversation

If a male employee came to you and asked could they go on sabbatical for 12 months to backpack around Europe, and you were agreeable to it…

If a young employee was granted the option to work part-time so they could study on the other days…

What would be your next steps? You'd start planning, openly and honestly.

If it was going to have implications for their progression, as any prolonged absence from the business or reduced working hours might, you'd discuss it.

Taking maternity leave, returning to work part time - it's the same, surely?

Let’s not be awkward about it. Openly acknowledge it for what it is, a period of absence from the business. Yes, they'll come back with life skills and experience and enhanced loyalty for accommodating the sabbatical or parental leave.

There are also commercial implications for your business. And that's okay. Don’t discriminate. Don’t penalise. Think of it factually as what it is. Be fair and reasonable. Don't turn it into an elephant in the room that it doesn't need to be.

15. Don't ever ask "what's your husband doing" in a rude and sarcastic way under your breath, when the working mother has to take a day of personal leave to look after a sick kid 

Instead, have a respectful and open conversation about their support network, seeking to understand rather than judge.

Also, please respect that the legislation in this country dictates personal leave be provided for a very legitimate reason. One day you may need to rely on it too (touch wood you don't).

In my case, my husband and I do our best to share duties between us as needed. If I'm taking a very rare day, often my husband will have taken the day before, or we've already spoken about him taking the next day if the illness extends. And if I am ‘taking a day’, I'm generally working from home if I can, potentially making up time later on. So the personal leave form goes through with as few hours as possible.

Again as above, if you feel like someone is taking advantage of their situation, that's a completely different and separate conversation. Please treat it as such.

16. Be aware of the second and third shifts

If you’re not a parent, please be aware. And if you are a parent, but are well past the early days, please try to remember.

Work is not a parent’s first shift, it’s their second. They’ve already likely had a full morning getting everyone ready and out the door. They very likely didn’t get to enjoy a quiet coffee, or to shower in peace. They may also be coming off a hectic night shift of little sleep.

And work is not their last shift for the day. They will go home to not just the end of their tired day, but the tired days of small humans, who are less equipped to cope with their days, who may be cranky and uncooperative.

Yes, parents choose to have kids. That doesn’t mean it isn’t tough some days. Kids are a joy, and the days can still be a grind. Some days it’s not good, or bad – just relentless.

I thought I was busy before I had kids, and now the knowing and exhausted smiles from parents make sense.

You don’t have to fix it. Just please don’t make it any harder.

And if you’re a spouse, going home from work, wanting to relax, please remember that the working mum hasn’t had a chance to yet, either, and please pitch in when you arrive.

17. Encourage open conversations about out-sourcing domestic duties

No one can do everything. And housecleaning, or meal subscription services, for example, might be seen as a luxury, sure. It took me a long time to 'give in' and pay for help. And this is really a whole other topic, but having others talk about it, normalising it, rationalising the economics of paying for services that free up time and angst and get a better result (show me any person who can clean better in short, interrupted spurts across a week than a dedicated cleaner can in less than half the time… and I’ll show you a fake Hollywood stepford-wife-type scenario) – it all helps with that.

If you have a cleaner, or use a meal subscription service, or do click-and-collect groceries, etc... talk about it, and encourage others to consider it.

18. Support, encourage, but don’t push

Some women want to take it slower, in terms of career progression. Some women don’t want the added responsibility and pressure taking a step up can bring, yet. And that has to be okay. I was one of them.

I’d been offered and encouraged down the partnership path for over ten years before I took it.  And if I’d been pushed any harder prior to then, I would have left the firm. Zero doubts in my mind about that. 

My leaders got it spot on. They made sure I knew the opportunity was mine for the taking. Gave me what I needed to get where I got, in terms of all of the above examples. Made it clear that I was a valued part of the firm, regardless of my title. And supported me unequivocally when I said I was ready.

18. Encourage time management to truly prioritise both work and personal responsibilities

When my firstborn has his last 'baby sensory' class on a day I was at work, not long after I’d returned from maternity leave (my Mum was taking him), I had Andrew Beattie’s voice in the back of my head saying Stace - take the hour. Go. You won't get this back. So I did.

I didn’t ask permission. I made sure my team knew where I was going, and when I’d be back. I still got done what I needed to get done.

And reasons like that, having the voice and values of my partners so deeply engrained that I figuratively hear them encouraging me to do what I need to right when it matters - all those reasons are why I've been with this firm for 19 years, and why I've never had to "play the mum card" in the last eight.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to my partners, to the managers I’ve looked up to over the years and been able to follow the example of, to the team around me, to PKF Newcastle and Sydney overarchingly as a whole.

And anyone else reading - you can create this too. The dividends it will pay, for little to no cost, are the gratitude and loyalty of good, clever, hardworking women. And the returns of their longstanding toil.

I promise you, it’s worth it.

Learn more about our Gender Equity Network - PKF.

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