For many women, the decision to return to work after having a child is focused far more on how many days they want to work, than what they actually want to do, leading them to make decisions about their career without ever stopping to ask themselves what it is they really want to do.
There are of course many “push” factors that make women feel they need to position the number of days they work as the non-negotiable – unaffordable childcare, inhospitable cultures that value face time over output, lack of flexibility and of course discriminatory attitudes. But when women fail to communicate their career vision and ambition as part of their return to work conversation, and similarly during pregnancy, assumptions are made on their behalf and employers are more likely to give them the “leftovers” which may suit some, but most certainly disengages many and often hampers career.
The real question this raises, is whether working mothers want a job or a career. Whether they want to just slide through working life with what is presented to them, or decide for themselves the path they will trek.
A recent study published in the Sydney Morning Herald found that maternal self-employment “is an option of last resort for many women that carries serious long-term economic consequences”. Undoubtedly the same applies to women who return to a role that either requires them to cram 5 days in 3 or insults their intellect and experience with work capable of being performed by someone significantly more junior to them – and so women leave.
The missed opportunity is that pregnancy is perhaps one of the most important times for women to invest time in thinking about exactly what they do want, rather than compromising themselves, their livelihood and often their career aspirations, by prioritising only what seems possible from the abyss of maternity leave. It seems somewhat ironic that in the work we do, we find that women who invest time in creating a professional vision and share it with influential stakeholders are not only more likely to be promoted, but have far greater flexibility to prioritise their family.
So what is a professional vision?
A professional vision is kind of like your career navigation system, anchoring you to your values, whilst enabling you to stay true to the dream of what your career could look like, if there were no limitations. It’s an expression of your career ambition and independence, that also reflects your family priorities. It’s a grown up way of asking what you want to be when you grow up; your ‘why’ for work, and helps you to define and ultimately negotiate the flexibility you desire without having to compromise on the quality of the work you perform.
At the heart of my professional vision are my values, and since having my first baby, I’ve used it to stay focused on what I’m ultimately trying to achieve, to perform work that energises me, while at the same time flexing up and down depending on the needs of my family, especially as babies number 2 and 3 arrived.
Know what you want and why.
Knowing your ‘why’ can also help you provide a thoughtful response to those unhelpful people who ask you why you work. And of course, it makes your manager’s job a whole lot easier when you know what you want!!! Growing up, I remember other children coming to play and when my Dad would ask them a question – would you like vegemite or honey in your sandwich, for example – they’d reply “I don’t mind,” to which my Dad would reply “I don’t either, but you’ve got to eat it, so you choose.” We know the amount of effort it takes to organise childcare and get back to work, but if you’re committed to going to all that effort anyway, why not ensure that it is doing something that reflects your talent, experience and passion, and that is also a productivity gain not drain for your employer.
In this insightful interview with Lauren Jauncey, Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Australia Post and a Grace Papers client, she shares her experience of knocking back a role when pregnant with her first baby, only to realise once she was on parental leave that it was probably the wrong decision….