Kristin is Lead Mama Lead’s Director, Policy and Advocacy. Her views are her own.
Since I returned to work after my second bout of maternity leave, did a minor pivot to a new role and came to Lead Mama Lead, I have been on a “mothers in leadership” mission in all areas of my work and life.
To learn more about how we can improve our workplaces for women who want to lean in, but flexibly, I have looked at what’s going on across the public sector (my domain). I am exploring how I can best shine a light on the productivity and missed opportunities from women who are been put (or put themselves) on the “mummy track”. I want to change some of the visible and invisible barriers that are keeping so many of us on ice during the flexible working years, starting with my own workplace.
If you are thinking about starting some advocacy in your own organisation, here are some of the most interesting things I have come across, which may help inspire you to start a big or small change in your own workplace.
1. Gather evidence
There is plenty of evidence that working mums are the most productive workers, and that flexible workers can be highly productive too. See for example the 2013 EY report on the role of Women in Unlocking Australia’s Productivity Potential, and the great resources on flexible working at Flexible Working Day. But how do you start to convince management that it’s time to change your own organisation to create career paths and meaningful work opportunities for mama leaders? Understanding the problem is a great place to start. You could:
- Approach your Human Resources area, look at annual reports, and see what existing data is publicly (or internally) available. What is the gender breakdown in the organisation? Does it change as you look up the levels? Are there age-related trends? Are there any stats on the percentage of part-time or flexible workers? Not statistically minded? Always good to learn a new skill – but try and find the data analysts in your organisation, who I find (great stereotype here) love making sense of interesting data to tell a story, and are usually willing to help.
- Run a staff survey, checking in on your existing staff to see whether current arrangements are working for them – and if not, where the organisation could improve. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency has some useful sample surveys and tools to get you started.
- Hold a workshop, focus group or informal lunch with other mothers you already know (and their networks) and discuss barriers and opportunities for your organisation in supporting mama leaders. Are there others willing to work with you to gather evidence, and to make your case for change in the organisation?
- Reach out to an existing women in leadership group (if there is one) to find other women to work alongside you (see 3 below).
Right, so now you have some evidence of where you might want to start targeting some changes. For example, are there no part timers above a certain level in the organisation? Do people tend to leave the organisation after they have kids? What is the attitude towards women or mothers in leadership like in the organisation? Does the work from home policy require you take photos of your home office (you mean my laptop and kitchen table?!), only apply to people who management trusts and loves, or look like it was created in 1998?! See you can spot some trends – and the most critical (or easiest) areas for intervention.
2. Find a champion/sponsor, as senior as you can manage
Next step, find your allies for change. Is there a person in your organisation who is well connected, loves a challenge, and makes things happen, while bringing their staff/colleagues along with them and inspiring staff to boot? Is there a senior leader (male or female) who is open to change, is a great influencer in the organisation, and someone you are willing to approach. Is this you?
I have seen organisations move quickly to increase opportunities for women in leadership, particularly when a senior leader makes it a personal mission to change a culture to become more inclusive and supportive of women.
One Federal Government department, which I won’t name here, had a recent example of this. When a new head of department first started, some internal influencers talked to him about the anecdotal mismatch between talented women and a senior executive group that had fewer than 30% female membership. This male champion of change* and his leadership group looking at their existing performance results (finding that women were doing as well as – or better than – men in performance reviews at all levels), ran a large staff survey and focus groups to try and pin down cultural/structural/attitudinal barriers to change, and then (and most importantly), worked with all staff to develop a women in leadership plan throughout the organisation.
One of the most exciting features of this was to the benefit to most staff – all positions were to be presumed flexible (part time hours, early/late starts etc). The onus was not on a parent (or carer, or person who had an outside interest) to prove the job could work, or to squeeze a full time job into 30 hours a week. The onus was now on management to make flexible working work. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start.
So, find your champion, and take your evidence base to them including your recommendations for how to make the easiest/most effective changes. Or be the champion for change in the areas over which you have influence. Do you know the person in HR who updates the working from home policy? Why don’t you offer to help them redraft it?
3. Find (or found) a women/mothers in leadership group
Our formal or informal networks can be a great way to start the change – the Lead Mama Lead workplace revolution. Working mums are some of the most time poor workers around – so finding time in those busy days for our own leadership can be challenging. The successful women in leadership groups I have seen (again, I’m focused on the public sector that I know), have managed to start with a small group of committed people, and build up from lunchtime catch ups to formal paid work time to work on their leadership, and even supporting other organisations to start women in leadership networks. If you are in the public sector, you can contact the Office for Women in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (they will put you on to the PM&C Women’s Network, who have a great outreach program).
And of course, if you’re not already there, come and find the supportive Lead Mama Lead community on Facebook, in our private group, attend one of our face to face events for meet other mama leaders, or you can start a Mama Leadership Book Group among your peers. Amazing how refreshing it is to go and talk not about your kids, but about the common barriers – and wonderful wins – of our mama leadership mission.
4. Be the change you want to see
Don’t underestimate the influence you can have by doing your job well, and not being shy about being a mum too. Your leadership is showing – so use it to inspire others.
I am trying to be a good and visible mama leader, and indeed I am one of the only part time and flexible workers at my level in my organisation. We often say at Lead Mama Lead that just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean you can’t ask for it. If other mothers or mothers-to-be, or fathers who want to seek flexible work, see you in a leadership role, working on meaningful things and “balancing” work and family, you can be the example that helps other women – and families – create their best work/life/care structure.*
As a manager, and as a mama leader, I’m honest with my team and colleagues about how challenging it can be to balance everything. Often it feels like I can be a great leader at work, but home falls down. Or I have an excellent, engaged, mummy day, only to feel like I’ve dropped the ball at work.
At work, I check in about how the balance is working for everyone every now and then. I support flexible working within my team (including a father who works nearly a full week, but starts at 7 to do school pick ups three days a week), and am not shy about helping my parent colleagues, supporting younger women in their careers, and speaking up when a decision looks like it may have adverse impacts on working parents.
It’s great that you’ve found Lead Mama Lead – now, it’s your turn to think about how you can lead the change – and be the change – in your own workplace. As my four year old says, “Lead Mama, Lead!”
* A note on male champions of change: I know there are some who find the concept of male champions of change – CEOs and other men who try to change organisations to bring in/bring up more women into leadership positions – a setback for the feminist movement. I have heard Clementine Ford, among others, argue very eloquently for this viewpoint, that why should we have to make space for men in a feminist discourse when we are only just finding our own safe spaces (like Lead Mama Lead) for these conversations?
**A relevant aside – Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu has been a game changer for me, as it has been for Lead Mama Leader Ruth. This practical guide and part autobiography has helped me have some tricky but necessary discussions with the home crew (husband and family who share the care of my kids in our own unique care/childcare/school/family arrangement). What are the minimum things we need to do to keep the house functioning each week? What are some of the things I do that my husband can take on (e.g. making lunches). How can we get the kids doing more themselves? Making these home tasks – and my mental load to manage them all – more visible has been a godsend for work, freeing up thinking time for the policy work I love, and making me a more present mama on my at home days.