What would cause a mother to pretend she is childless in the workplace?
I was at a women's leadership event recently listening to a business woman speak about her career challenges and successes. During her talk she mentioned that she had a young child. One of the women at my table immediately looked horrified, shook her head and then muttered to herself, "No don't talk about that". I enjoy hearing the stories of working mothers because the more we share the more normal it will seem. But evidently not everyone shares my view.
The incident caused me to reflect on a former colleague. She was the mother of young daughters but was afraid to even mention them at work. I found her in the corridor one morning and it was clear she had been crying. Her seven-year-old had fallen in the playground and broken her arm. But she didn't tell me that. When I asked her if she was OK she attempted to hide her tears and said she had stomach pain. I had to push to get her to reveal the situation with her daughter. I only knew about it because her closest work colleague had tipped me off out of concern. I told this woman to go to her child. But she refused, saying that she was committed to her job and didn't want to jeopardise it.
I was concerned by her reaction. Not because she didn't want to go to her young child but because it was clear she felt she couldn't. What sort of work environments had this woman experienced for her to get to the point where she thought her job security would be at risk if she chose to prioritise, for just one day, her child's feeling of security? I spent some time explaining to her we were a family-friendly organisation that understood the need for a parent to be with their child in a situation like this one. As the most senior woman in the organisation and a member of the executive team I all but insisted she leave. And still she didn't. She worked a full day, refused to engage with anyone's concerns, and then went home at her usual time.
The experience highlighted the issues that many women still perceive they are faced with, even if they're not. She would have been supported in our company if she chose to go to her child on this day. But perhaps in her previous place of employment she would have been immediately struck off the future leaders list.
I can honestly say that I have never felt compelled to remain circumspect about my children. To the contrary, my children used to drop by the office. My eldest once charmingly told my CEO that he looked liked Santa Claus "only with a rounder belly". That's how I discovered my boss had a sense of humour. Also, I had photos of them in my office and I talked about them (hopefully not incessantly, but often).
Our work environments need to be places where we can perform to the best of our potential. To enable this we should feel comfortable about who we are and the choices we have made in our life. That includes race, religion, sexual orientation and parenthood. To feel as though you need to suppress any of that is beyond my comprehension. But it clearly happens in some organisations and for some people. How can we change that?
Have you ever felt pressured to play down the fact that you have children?
Marina Go is GM of Hearst-Bauer, publisher of Harper's Bazaar, ELLE and Cosmopolitan. She is also chair of the Wests Tigers, a director of Odyssey House McGrath Foundation and a member of the advisory boards of the Walkley Foundation, The Remarkables Group and Women's Agenda. She has an MBA from The AGSM and is a member of the AICD.