The Silent Barrier to Women in Leadership


Women, Leadership, Babies and Beliefs.....


March brings us Mothers Day, and with 2 children under 4 it’s a day I’ll be celebrating. Celebrating how proud I am that I have 2 wonderful children who are kind, funny and caring. I’m not sure how much is nature and how much is nurture but I know my parenting has a role to play in who they are becoming. I'm a professional working woman so why am I writing about motherhood? It’s important because I am both a Mother AND a Businesswoman. I value my work as a parent AND I have strong ambition for my coaching business, I have drive for success and passion for achievement in BOTH my roles. Having children bought me greater clarity over my career direction, greater self belief and confidence, purpose and ambition – but the transition into this ‘identity’ wasn’t necessarily easy or smooth.


There is an ever increasing amount of media coverage about Women in Leadership, some Women who seemingly ‘Have it all” and those who believe they cannot. Becoming a Mother means that Women have to make choices. Choices such as “Do I return to work, when do I return to work, what sort of work do I want return to” and these are all the surface level challenges that women can make decisions about. Many employers help by considering adjustments to working patterns to support childcare needs, and are supportive when there is the odd day of absence or home working when a child is ill, but for many employers it doesn’t go beyond this.


In my role as a coach I’ve had the pleasure of coaching a range of Mum’s facing their return to work after having up to 12 months off. What strikes me most of all is, firstly, the capability, drive and desire to have a fulfilling and meaningful career. Second to that are the crises of confidence and self imposed limitations that these highly successful women plague themselves with. Let me be clear, these are not ‘broken’ women, these are high caliber, well respected, professional women, who, after taking time out to start or grow their families find themselves in a position where they have to make sense of their role as Mother and Working Professional.


When I ask women what beliefs they hold about returning to work I am now not surprised when I hear responses such as “I cannot have a successful career being part time”, “People won’t see me in the same way now that I’m a parent”. And when I ask what beliefs they hold about themselves, I am met with responses such as, “I’ve lost my ability to think on my feet” or “I don’t have the confidence I used to have”, worse still, “I think it’ll be better for everyone if I just give it up”.


I wonder - to what extent are some women self-selecting themselves out of the leadership race by believing that they can’t have it all, after all. It’s the internal challenges that I believe can become a real blocker for women and it’s here that I call upon employers and line managers to make a real difference.


So if you’re a mother, an employer or line manager of a woman returning to work and you’re committed to promoting women in Leadership and a diverse workforce then read on – I hope you’ll find it useful.


Let’s start by considering what a transition to work can actually look like/feel like through the eyes of a mother:


GUILT – No-body tells you about the new relationship you will have to build with guilt as a new parent. Whether it’s the time that your child has been up all night with a high temperature and you tentatively drop them off to nursery the next day and tell a little white lie about how your child is a ‘little under the weather’ just so you can make the strategy meeting you’ve been preparing for all week, or the time you call into work to cancel the strategy meeting because your child has been up all night with a high temperature. You are simply damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It’s quite a journey learning how to manage this guilt in a way that keeps you healthy and thriving at work


MENTAL DEXTERITY – One minute you are on maternity leave drinking coffee exchanging stories, stacking blocks, changing nappies and singing nursery rhymes, next you’re staring at your overspent budget having to explain yourself to your senior managers. The mental dexterity you need as a parent is simply mind boggling so when you turn up to work singing the theme tune to DInoPaws it’s easy to think that you can’t hack it in the boardroom. At the extreme maintaining positive mental health is a real issue for many mums. 1 in 10 mums experience some kind of post natal depression, which doesn’t just fix itself upon returning to work. In fact stress can be a trigger for many women. It can be a crippling condition that mums have to learn how to manage. Even without PND being a factor ensuring that maternity returners maintain their self-belief in the face on crises of confidence is something most Mum’s could relate to.


SELF DOUBT – We all have internal voices. Some are kind and act as our cheerleader “well done, great work, you nailed it!” but more often that not our negative internal voices hold us back. When a good night is defined by stringing together 6 hours of broken sleep and a successful morning is defined my using baby wipes to clean everyone’s faces and dropping the baby off in their PJ’s, its easy for that internal voice to become unhelpful, giving you messages that you aren’t good enough and can’t compete with other – child free – colleagues at work. With the right support, we can all learn to control these voices and turn the messages into something empowering.


STRESS – When a woman becomes a mother for the first time there is a huge adjustment that takes place. You no longer have the freedom to come and go as you please. If you want to head out for a run it’s a negotiation with your partner about childcare and when you return to work after having your first, second, or third child the adjustment continues as you factor in childcare, pick ups and drop offs, who takes time off if your child is ill. There are just more moving parts to factor into life so when you have to factor in work too it can be more challenging to keep stress at bay. The important thing to know about stress is that it can bring out unhelpful behaviours. Everyone has them and they tend to show up in 1 or 2 of 5 drivers; Be perfect, Be Strong, Hurry Up, Try hard, Please others. For example, someone with a Be Perfect Driver, under normal circumstances has high expectations of others and strives for excellence in what they do, under pressure these characteristics can lose perspective and the need to do better and be more perfect takes over. Learning to become aware of reactions under pressure and how to navigate these behaviours becomes another lesson to master in returning to work.


So what can employers do to help Mothers returning to work. Here are my Top Suggestions:


Consider a phased return – Phasing a return to work will make the transition from Full time Mum to Working Mum a lot easier. Not only does it give time to build confidence in the childcare arrangements that are in place but also enables Mothers to make that emotional transition that can trigger negative emotions such as sadness and guilt as they leave their babies for what is often the first prolonged amount of time. Ultimately it helps to avoid stress and overwhelm giving you a higher performing, confident employee.


Plan a thorough Induction – After a week of being in the office it may feel like your employee has never been away but it’s highly unlikely the feeling is mutual. Plan a thorough induction for your returning mother, involve them, find out their needs and how they’d like to spend their first few weeks. Cover off what has changed in since they’ve been away and allow time for key relationships to be re-established.

Ask “How do you need to be supported at work in order to thrive?” – You’ll probably get a surface answer such as a little flexibility in your hours, but keep probing (how else? What else?)  and open up a dialogue until you get answers that point to your employees values, such as reassurance that I’m doing a good job or regular feedback so I know how I’m performing. Then ensure that you meet these needs. How many line managers really know what they need to do to support each and every one of their team members?


Co-create objectives – get the basics right by being clear about expectations and responsibilities. A great way to do this is to outline the business/departments strategy and direction and then co- create some objectives with your employee. Allow some scope for your maternity returner to make suggestions about what they could get involved in and how they meet the needs of the role. You want to create energy and excitement. Ask “What needs to happen so you’re excited about coming to work each day”. And this goes hand in hand with my next tip.


Don’t make assumptions – It should go without saying, don’t make assumptions that if a woman returns part time, even full time,  that they have given up on their career ambitions. Understand what your employees’ career aspirations are and provide the matching level of stretch and opportunity. Many women feel that they have been ‘written off’ because of their needs to work part time, or in becoming a mother and needing to leave ‘on time’ – these feelings are often far from reality. Ask ‘what is important to you now and in the future?’


Acknowledge the change – Create the space to get involved in your employees new life. Let her know that she has permission to be a mother and an employee. Ask about her child, her life and how she feels about work. Acknowledge that it might be a difficult transition.  I believe that mothers are some of the most committed and hardworking employees you will ever have, honour that, and allow her to be her whole self it is almost certain that she will return with openness and honesty, hard work and dedication.


Offer support – If your organisation has the resources to do so providing some form of Coaching or Mentoring in the months after returning to work is an excellent level of additional support that can help women returning to work to thrive. A coach or mentor will work to change any unhelpful beliefs into empowering beliefs and the result can be a confident, empowered, driven and unstoppable employee! I believe that this is a key solution to retaining and developing talented women that might otherwise disengage or leave an organisation and I would be excited to see all businesses thinking proactively about this important area of work. Obviously I’m biased (!) but I have both personal experience and client experience of what a difference this level of support can do.


If you’d like to know more about the sorts of programmes you can put in place to support people returning from a sustained absence at work then please do get in touch. Maybe the best employers will go even one step further and offer support for Dad’s too – I’m pretty sure women aren’t alone in these parenting related challenges!


Zoe Hawkins, Coach and Co-Director of In Good Company – specializing in Transformational Coaching and Leadership development.



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