parent opinion

"Forget about the glass ceiling, working mums now have to deal with the 'maternal wall'."

Working in various HR roles for over 15 years I always found it astonishing to hear hiring managers say, “Oh I wonder if she has finished having kids yet?”, “I heard she has been married for three years, she’ll probably start having babies soon” and many other variations of the same thing. It’s really such a narrow-minded way to look at hiring prospects – we might as well rule out all of the female candidates before we start the interview process right….?

A Princeton University social sciences article explained that mothers were stereotyped into one of two subtypes: mothers that stayed at home were perceived to have more warmth but were perceived as incompetent, and working mothers were perceived as competent but cold.

Wait what?! Hang on, it gets better, the study also found that working women who became mothers were perceived to trade their competence for warmth (uh-ha!) and even more interestingly, the study found that working men who became fathers, gained perceived warmth and maintained their perceived confidence. Wow, any unconscious biases and prejudices going on here?

My only hope for all of us is that this particular research was conducted back in 2004 – but truth be told, I don’t think society and hiring culture in the workplaces have shifted entirely away from this (well not unconsciously anyway). But is there a silver lining?

Forget about glass ceilings that women are supposed to be smashing – have you heard of the concept of the “maternal wall”? It’s what mothers face in the workforce when seeking new roles or reentry. How about the perception that a childless woman that is away from the office is attending an external business meeting, whilst working mothers who are away from their desks are at home caring for sick children? I’m starting to get very hot under my proverbial collar and all of this research is really getting me quite wound up.

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"The reality is unconscious biases exists, but this is where it needs to end." Image: Supplied.

So let’s flip this on its head. The reality is unconscious biases exists, this we must just acknowledge and accept of the past – but this is where it needs to end. The Australian workforce has four very distinct generations that coexist together. The exciting news is that the Generation Y is now the largest population in Australia – that is people aged between 25-34.

So, whilst women, and even more so our favourite subsection of women – mothers, have felt and have experienced first hand unconscious and conscious biases, negative stereotypes and prejudices previously, I feel really strongly that the times for significant changes are right now.

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Women have never been more educated than now, they are also having babies later than ever (the Australian median age is now 31.2), which means they are much more accomplished before motherhood than ever before. We also have beautiful males around us including our partners, brothers and colleagues who are more accepting and open to the equality of women and the appreciation of motherhood.

Technology is now as such that we really can work from almost anywhere and at any time. Think out of the box when it comes to what employment can look like for you as a mother. Don’t settle for the old rules – they just don’t apply anymore, and you should feel confident to challenge them if they continue to exist around you.

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Working mums know how to get the job done, quickly and efficiently. Image: Supplied.

We must continue to use our voices, our amazing skills and networks to support each other, lift up, promote and even lean in – as a book you may have heard of asks us to do. Now is the time to take a leaf from our fellow males in the workplace and self-promote ourselves and women around us like we never have before.

Be bold! Be brave! Hell, your manager is most likely to be your age or younger – so the intimidation of the stately old chauvinistic grey-haired man looking down at our pregnant bellies or our flexible arrangement requests is now a minority, and through the continued push, will be eliminated forever.

So for all the working mothers out there, or the mums currently on a career break looking to reenter the workplace, know that this is your time. Your ability to multitask and get the job done is known by all those around you. Your husband/partner is totally mesmerised by what you can achieve in a day. Your dad is awe of you. Your children think you are Wonder Woman with the golden lasso (do younger people actually know who Wonder Woman is? But I think you get my point). If hiring managers and business owners didn’t know already, let me make it perfectly clear to you all – working mums take the cake.

Working mums are usually on borrowed time, either from childcare, after school care or the nanny/grandparent/partner that is looking after their kids on every single one of their work days. They are able to dissect each minute of our every hour and create efficiencies that you have never experienced. There is no hanging out at the water cooler, or long Friday afternoon lunches. There are no redundant meetings for meeting's sake. They are a bunch of proactive, component, efficient doers and nothing less.

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Kim with her business partner, Pinky McKay. Image: Supplied.

In addition to this amazing combination of skills, let’s not forget that working mothers are still women, and we know that women have a naturally higher level of wanting to please their managers and go the extra mile to prove their worth. Add the extra level of motherhood to this characteristic and you have a group of employees who are likely to work through lunch, exceed deadlines and create amazingly balanced workplaces where mentoring and sharing of information and ideas is part of the culture.

Sounds like the perfect combination of qualities that any work place would willingly seek, accept and cultivate don’t you think? Any way what do I know? I’m just a Post Graduate qualified mother that reached the heights of a head of role within the banking industry and now owns two businesses that employs 10 women (with half of us mothers ourselves, and three of these mums reentered the workforce with us after extended career breaks caring for their own children).

Seems as though it is little old me that is taking the cake and getting to eat it too.

Kim Vespa is the co-owner of both Boobie Bikkies (makers of Australia’s most popular breastfeeding snack) and Punk Angel (makers of a boutique range of safe hair care for kids). Kim holds a Bachelor of Behavioural Science (majoring in Psychology) and a Post Graduate Diploma in Human Resource Management. Kim previously was the Head of Human Resources and sat on the Australian Executive Committee for UBS Wealth Management and held the title of Director.

Kim was also the Head of HR for APAC for CBIG Consulting that recently were acquired by Deloitte Consulting. Kim also has extensive experience in HR Consulting across a range of industries and sectors. Kim is married and has two primary school aged children.

Do you believe in the 'maternal wall'? Tell us in a comment below.

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