I became a mum for the first time in my late thirties.
Like many working women, I absolutely loved my career and naively believed that my ‘career break’, a few short months at home with my new baby, would in no way interrupt my return to work plans, my career trajectory or my salary.
Yes. That was the sound of me landing after navigating my first return to work.
The ‘juggle’ was everything the working mothers before me had promised … and more.
The frazzle, the spinning plates, the guilt, the feeling of doing every aspect of life badly and pretty much winging both motherhood and work.
I simply smashed five days of work into three.
I was replying to emails in the grocery queue, locking myself in my parked car to return calls, agreeing to join an ‘urgent’ meeting live from the park on mute and banging out overdue work through slitty eyes before a night feed.
Clearly, this situation didn’t work for me. I was stressed, exhausted, frazzled and edgy. I’m sure it didn’t work that well for my team or the business.
Therefore, it isn’t surprising to me that over 50% of women in Australia leave their employer after maternity leave and don’t return to their roles. The primary reason? A lack of flexible work options.
Not only does this cost millions of dollars each year in re-hiring costs and training for the business but there is so much valuable IP that literally just walks out the door.
And what do the women do who don’t return to those roles? Some make a choice to stay home with their children. However, the vast majority in Australia trade off, big time.
They sacrifice salary for flexibility.
They accept part-time roles close to home for a fraction of the salary or seniority they worked hard to achieve.
And they evaluate options around re-skilling, study or starting a business and put their earning capacity on hold completely.
In a recent survey by Puffling of 1,000 Australian working mothers, 56% had taken a significant pay cut after having a baby and 62% reported to have faced gender discrimination at work – 40% of these, at an executive level.
If we are serious about a future where we see true gender parity at leadership levels and salary, we have to get serious about flexibility. This means organisations must ensure the right systems, programs, options and accountabilities are in place to offer flexibility to all.
Flexibility should not be treated or labelled as a perk. It’s a critical way to attract and retain talent, to increase productivity and it leads to increased diversity and productivity within an organisation. In addition to this, flexibility is a powerful way to ensure you are attracting top talent and retaining your star performers as an employer.
And senior women in fact now rate flexibility as more appealing than a pay rise.
Burn out in corporate Australia is very real. The mental load, especially for working parents in juggling a high-pressured career with family life creates stress, anxiety and good old- fashioned exhaustion for many.
Two years ago, I launched a business called Puffling to address the need for greater solutions around flexibility for senior women.
We connect organisations to top talent and provide part-time, contract or job share teams.
The beauty of creating a senior job share team is that businesses see the benefits of two senior women working together. As a pair, they solve problems collectively and collaborate, bringing the benefits of combined experience, networks and outcome based results.
The businesses access five-day coverage as well as activating a solution to promote women into leadership positions.
Too often, part-time remits are viewed as a barrier for leadership roles. This is a key reason why we see only 17% of CEO roles and a mere 30% of management positions held by females.
We need to make some very big changes in Australia’s workplace cultures focused on flexibility.
This is the single most powerful driver to change and to ensure we have more women returning to leadership positions after having children.
And this is not just an Australian workplace issue. Globally, only 34% of senior managerial positions are held by women.
A study by The Knight Foundation in 2018 looked specifically at gender inequality in the finance industry. In Australia, we see the highest gender pay gap for women in finance with the WGEA data for 2019 reporting that women in finance were ranked with a 29% pay gap.
In the US, 1% of the $70 trillion dollars of assets under management in the financial sector are managed by firms led by a woman.
Furthermore, women receive a mere 2% of venture funding as entrepreneurs and make up only 9% of VC partners. These incredibly low numbers are baffling especially when you consider that research shows companies with female leaders and board members financially outperform all-male boards and businesses.
We are dealing with huge workplace challenges, issues and barriers, in the public and private sectors both locally and globally.
When discussing these issues, we need to call out that issues around the lack of gender diversity at a leadership level, the gender pay gap and the lack of support for flexibility at a senior level are not women’s issues.
They affect us all.
Reform is required across both the public and private sector. It’s a chain reaction of issues and solutions which must be connected and addressed.
Flexibility is at the centre of how changes can be impacted towards a better and more equitable future of work.
We need reform in our polices on family leave and childcare benefits. We need to work quickly to address the gender pay gap across all industries. And we need to broaden our options for flexible work at all levels for both men and women.
The benefits of such changes are not about feeling good or ticking a box on social good. Denying flexible work at senior levels will continue to have a negative impact on women in leadership.
The talents, skills, diversity in thinking, the energy and the focus on change women bring to leadership positions will only lead to greater economic and social benefits as well as a more inclusive and productive future of work.
About the author
Lija Wilson has worked for some of Australia’s biggest brands and businesses, with over 20 years experience in senior marketing roles.
She worked for 8 years with Fairfax Media in various roles including the Group Marketing Director for Transactional Businesses (RSVP, Stayz, Domain, Drive and InvestSmart ). She then relocated to Melbourne for 5 years with Jetstar and Qantas to establish their online hotels division and also spent a year as the Head of Marketing for TEDx Melbourne.
Lija’s career changed direction following the arrival of her two boys and co-founded Puffling to address the challenges surrounding senior women returning to senior positions after maternity leave.