Parenting at work: how visible are your choices?

It’s 2pm on a Wednesday. The daycare centre has just called. Little Ava is sick. Again. Do you tell your boss that you have to miss that afternoon meeting to pick up your child? Do you feign a migraine so you can leave without judgmental comments? Or do you just slink out, once again leaving a jacket on the back of your chair, and check your email regularly to maintain the appearance that you were there until 5pm? Your plan of action will depend on the culture of parenting in your workplace.

As two full-time working mums, we’ve been interested in these questions since our first children were born. At that time, we were in the early stages of our careers. Like most new parents, we had to become adept at juggling competing (and sometimes colliding) responsibilities. We found ourselves making choices – often on the fly – about when to make our parenting responsibilities visible at work (and to whom we were willing to make them visible). Our current and future career possibilities were always at the forefront of our minds.

Image via iStock.

Visible parenting can include many things: talking about your children in the workplace; having photos of them on your desk; taking carer’s leave when they are sick; bringing your children to work (either for visits or by necessity); breastfeeding or expressing breastmilk at work; negotiating flexible hours with your manager; and openly refusing or adapting work tasks (such as travel).

Every workplace has a different culture of parenting, which can also vary between colleagues and management. In some workplaces, it might be considered more acceptable for women to be open about their parenting responsibilities than men – as shown in recent research by Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women and in Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought. Workplace discrimination against parents remains rife – as discussed in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report ‘Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work’. Almost half of all mothers reported workplace discrimination while pregnant, and 27 per cent of fathers or partners had similar experiences around the arrival of a new baby.

how to survive as a mum in business
Image via iStock.

Discrimination, whether explicitly communicated or indirectly experienced, has serious implications for Australian workplaces and their productivity. No less important are the daily experiences of struggling to achieve that balancing act – a sometimes stressful, tiresome and difficult task. The cost of living is increasing, housing is less affordable than ever, and childcare fees, in some cases, consume one partner’s entire wage. Then there is the added guilt we feel when we are at work, or we can’t pick our kids up early, when we stay late, when we can’t volunteer at school, or when work takes away from the family home. Amidst all of this, our own research seeks to better understand the choices that Australian parents make about parenting visibly at work – and why. We’re also interested in the perceived consequences of these choices.

On a personal level, we know women who express breast milk in toilet cubicles because their male-dominated workplaces don’t have parents’ rooms. They don’t feel comfortable asking for a more appropriate space to be provided. We know fathers who cannot leave work on time, even when their managers are also parents and they are in government workplaces where fair and flexible work policies should be equitably implemented.


While pregnant at work, we both weathered comments about our size, our prospective capabilities as parents and our ‘baby brain(s)’.  Others have had their pregnant bodies touched, prodded, sized up and stroked.

Dr Danielle Drozdzewski and Dr Natascha Klocker. Image supplied.

We would love to hear your stories – about visible (or invisible!) parenting at work. With that in mind, we invite men and women who are in paid employment, and who have children under 16 years of age, to complete our survey. This survey will take about 20 minutes to complete, and while we know you’re busy we hope that this research will help us to work towards promoting workplace cultures that openly acknowledge (and perhaps even embrace!) parenting. In addition, share your stories with us on Twitter by using the hashtag #VisibleParenting.

The project, Visible Parenting in Australian Workplaces, has been approved by the UNSW Australia Human Research Ethics Advisory Panel (E), Approval No:  155088 and is funded by a University of Wollongong Global Challenges Seed Grant. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask the lead researchers, Dr Danielle Drozdzewski ([email protected]) or Dr Natascha Klocker ([email protected]). Further information about our project, and about the research team, is available at: here

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