Scaling The Nappy Wall

1st March 2013

In honour of International Women’s Day (8 March), Claire Moulds looks at a contemporary dilemma that demonstrates the 1960s rallying cry ‘the personal is political’ still holds true today…

Imagine a bright, creative and highly motivated little boy who’s been brought up to believe that he can be anything he wants in life if he works hard enough.

We’ll call him Sam.

Picture Sam as he gets top marks and glowing reports throughout his school career. Watch him thrive at University with his thirst for knowledge and passion for his subject. See him beat off stiff competition to secure his dream job and share his delight in rising quickly through the ranks.

One day Sam becomes primary carer to his baby boy.

Imagine Sam’s bosses telling him that his former job can’t be done on a part-time basis and that flexible hours aren’t possible but that, as he’s a ‘valued’ employee, they are happy for him to move to a different role within the company that’s more ‘family friendly’.

Picture Sam now, as he accepts a job that isn’t as interesting or challenging as his old one and which doesn’t have the same career trajectory. Watch him see former colleagues without children continue to climb the ladder. See Sam realise that his new part-time salary barely covers the childcare costs incurred while he’s at work.

How unfair, short-sighted and just plain wrong does the above story sound? So, why is it when we substitute ‘Samantha’ for ‘Sam’ people suddenly find it much more acceptable?

For so long we’ve railed against the glass ceiling, against the reluctance of all male Boards to promote women into senior positions. We’ve launched initiative after initiative to address the balance and still there’s been no real step change in the gender split of management positions in top companies. The truth is though, there’s a far more substantial barrier to overcome first: the nappy wall.

Men, unlike women, do not have to take a step off the career ladder to become a parent. The combination of the man being the main breadwinner in the majority of households and the fact that women are still seen as the lynchpin holding the family together – combining the roles of nurturer, home maker and domestic organiser – means that, more often than not, we are left holding the baby, at great economic and professional cost.

So, why is it, in a society where girls continue to outperform boys academically, that we still refuse to let mothers fulfil their true potential? Why does motherhood have to mean reining in ambition? Why do businesses continue to allow their inflexible working policies to exclude talented women from key posts, meaning that they lose out on all their insight, knowledge and experience?

It is against this backdrop – and having recently turned 35 – that I find myself facing a stark choice. If my husband and I are going to have a baby then time is ticking and we need to commit to starting a family before the year is out. But, like many of my peers, I am terrified of the implications for my career, especially having witnessed the impact that becoming a mother has had on the professional lives of close friends.

I love my job and get a tremendous kick out of what I do, but I know it’s very incompatible with caring for young children. While people will always cite examples of hugely successful women who’ve juggled major careers with a being a parent, they almost always overlook the team of helpers that’s on hand to support them both at home and work. For ‘normal’ people there is mum and there is dad and that’s it.

I’m sure many will argue that having a child will make up for anything I might miss out on in my career but that doesn’t make me any less angry or resentful at having to choose between motherhood and progression in my field. After all, I’ve worked hard all my life to get to where I am today and I can’t bear the thought of having to throw that all away.

Ironically it’s Mother Nature that’s backing me into a corner as while I could spend the next few years fulfilling some of my outstanding goals I just don’t know when my personal fertility window might close. It’s Catch-22.

The truth is that there are four key factors conspiring against women when they try to balance career and family.

Firstly, the biological significance of reaching your mid-thirties means women only have so long to make their mark in business before they reach a fertility crossroads. Unfortunately, 35 also coincides with the point in a career where both men and women have generally become senior enough for their voices to carry real weight in an organisation, which is why the disappearance of women at this crucial juncture leads to a cruel cycle of under-representation.

Secondly, there is the pervasive belief that mothers are no longer the person they once were, that they have lost their ambition, drive and ability in a fog of ‘baby brain’. Reinforcement of this belief comes in the fact that we only ever read and hear about mums missing their babies when they go back to work and never about those mums who miss their jobs when they go on maternity leave and who are literally itching to get back to their desk!

This stems from a wider issue in that women are still defined first and foremost by their role as a mother and are expected to prioritise being a parent above everything else, including their career. For fathers there is no equivalent expectation because it is assumed that mum will ‘manage’ the children and that he will therefore retain his focus.

Thirdly there is the high cost of childcare which literally traps women in the home. Research by Mintel last autumn revealed that six in ten stay-at-home mothers had not returned to work because of these costs. Given that the UK has some of the most expensive childcare in the developed world this should come as no surprise, with parents spending 27% of their net family income on it. In contrast, parents in Europe spend just 13% on average.

The financial barriers to returning to work are also increased by the fact that the pay gap between men and women with a full-time job triples from 7% before starting a family to 21% once a woman has children, according to a report released in December by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – the so called ‘motherhood penalty’.

For those women whose career is integral to their sense of self, being forced to stay at home and sacrifice everything on the altar of motherhood can quickly lead to boredom and frustration.

Finally, there is the combination of working hours that don’t offer enough flexibility for mums – especially for key positions in a company – and the comparatively small amount of domestic and parenting support provided by men Monday to Friday. As a result, mum finds herself acting as a pressure relief valve during the working week, absorbing the varied demands of family life, from the routine tasks of washing, ironing and cleaning to the unpredictable events such as caring for a sick child or getting a broken boiler fixed – the much talked about ‘second shift’.

Some argue that men should take on the woman’s role if they earn less and learn to juggle the same number of plates, or become househusbands and take sole responsibility for the home and children. But is cutting another talent pool out of the marketplace really the answer? Is that not simply transferring an unfair situation from one gender to another?

The reality is, while we were busy focusing on making our way in a ‘man’s world’ we forgot to bring men into ours, encouraging them to take on domestic responsibility and be a more active parent. Women can’t ‘have it all’ because motherhood never evolved in the same way that our working lives have. For women to play a complete role in society, traditional family roles need to be restructured to reflect the fact that women have to be unchained from the home to pursue their own ambitions – free of maternal guilt – while men need to be more present. Equality in parenting and the management of the home is as important as equality in the workplace if women are to develop their full potential.

To achieve this, employers need to offer both parents flexible working conditions. This would enable mum and dad to organise their schedule so that they can both give 100% to their employer and to their family. For men it would mean getting to spend more time with their loved ones, thereby removing the guilt of previous generations at ‘not being there’, while women would benefit not only from being able to continue on the career path they were following prior to giving birth, but also from not having virtually sole responsibility for their home and children five days of the week and the juggling act that this necessitates.

In order for the next generation of both sexes to ‘have it all’ we therefore need to break the association that ‘man = career’ and ‘woman = family and home’, so that both genders can combine a successful professional life with being a hands-on parent, whilst viewing domestic chores as a joint endeavour.

The alternative is to continue to inspire, encourage and support young girls to do great things… only to snatch those dreams away from them when they become a mother.

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