It’s not easy being a career woman and knowing you want to start a family. If this is you, how positive are you feeling about your prospects for making it work?
If the answer is “not positive at all”, then I totally get it. These are tumultuous times for women. With a groundswell of sexual harassment claims giving rise to the #MeToo movement, and alarming revelations about the extent of the gender pay gap, every day we are reminded that there is still some way to go in the fight for equality and the battle against discrimination.
100 years of female suffrage
But it’s not all bad. In celebrating 100 years of female suffrage this week, it’s been uplifting to reflect on the great strides women have made in the workplace since 1918. 47% of the UK workforce is now female (ONS) and 26% of FTSE 100 board posts are occupied by women. Women are achieving great things in senior positions in businesses across the spectrum. Brilliant news! However, despite these fantastic advances, many women are still finding that having a family is an obstacle to career success. Statistics show that many pregnant women and new mums have experienced discrimination, marginalisation or harassment in the workplace (have a look at the fabulous website Pregnant Then Screwed for compelling evidence.) And it’s not just institutional discrimination that makes it hard. The physical and emotional demands of balancing work and motherhood can be overwhelming too. (See my blog post on the 5 pitfalls of working motherhood here.)
You’re not alone
So – if you’re a career woman who wants it all – the rewarding career and fulfilling family life – then it’s totally understandable that you may be feeling anxious, worried or sceptical about whether it can work. But don’t despair, you’ve come to the right place. In this blog I want to show you that there is hope; that you are very definitely not alone in your fears; and that there is a wealth of support and help available – right here. After all, I know how you feel!
My failure. Your success
When I was in my late 20s, I was a hugely ambitious lawyer in the City but knew that I wanted a family. I also knew that keeping my career on track was going to be hard when the time came, but I had no idea how to prepare for what I knew would be one of my biggest challenges. No wonder then, that when my second son Noah was born, I finally succumbed to the seemingly insurmountable pressures of juggling a family and a career. But what I learned from this experience is more valuable than gold: that a lack of understanding and preparation leads to overwhelm and failure – and that if you forearm yourself with the necessary knowledge and skills, you can beat the odds. You can make it work. I made those mistakes so you don’t have to. So, If you’re game, I’m here to help. Let’s do this.
Confront the issues
The first thing to do is to accept that it’s hard from the get-go! Know your enemy. If you acknowledge and understand exactly what you’re up against – you’ll be in a much better position to deal with the issues. In my experience, these are the 3 hardest things about being a career woman who is thinking about having a family.
- There are few role models.
There’s safety in numbers and no-one relishes being the first person to try something new. We like to follow a well-trodden path, not only to emulate those who have gone before, but to find reassurance that it can be done. But where are they? You may know successful career women who ultimately foundered when it came to balancing work and family, or perhaps you have seen some who succeeded but are unrealistic, unappealing or un-relatable role models. This makes you feel that only a certain ‘type’ of career woman can make a success of working motherhood, and when that ‘type’ is not someone you like or relate to, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you are destined to fail.
- You fear being judged.
Perhaps you have witnessed or heard people in the office adversely judging women who have returned from maternity leave and who have asked to work flexibly or part time. Colleagues and managers start to see and treat them differently – whether it’s the topic of the conversations they initiate or the nature or the work they give them. If you’ve seen this, you fear that you’ll be judged negatively when you become a parent. That you will go from a respected ‘career woman’ to a tolerated ‘mum who works’ overnight, causing as much damage to your confidence as it does to your credibility.
- Not knowing whether to lean in or lean out.
What should you do if you want kids in the not-too distant future? Should you “lean in” and go for a senior or leadership role now so that you can consolidate your position before having a family? Or should you “lean out” – take your foot off the gas and postpone your career ambitions so you can have kids first without overburdening yourself with a senior role? Which option is better for you? Which is better for your career? And how do you make the right decision when there are no guarantees how long each will take?
Well here’s what you can do:
If any or all the above issues resonate with you, then know you’re not alone and that help is at hand. Here’s what you can do:
- Fix your mind-set
Ask any high performer and they’ll tell you of the importance of mind-set. If you allow yourself to think negatively about your chances of success, you are getting in your own way and setting yourself on a path to failure. If you’re guilty of thinking “it can’t be done” or “you can’t have it all”, it’s time to stop. Realise that the resources you need to make it work depend on you having an open and positive mind-set to start with. It’s not always easy, but it is the bedrock of babyproofing your career. You need to start having a positive and practical outlook before you make the decision to have children. (I share some tips on how to do this here).
- Look elsewhere for role models.
Seeing someone we admire and whose values we identify with achieving what we aspire to and living the life we would want is a huge motivating force. If there aren’t any role models in your organisation, then look elsewhere – across industries, in public life or even in literature or films. There are role models out there, you just need to find them. Be inspired! (Have a look at my blog post on the importance of role models here).
- Bank your credit.
Whatever you do, don’t put your head in the sand. Plan your progression and consolidate your career NOW. Work hard, stretch yourself, raise your profile at work and get building those networks so that when the time comes to have a family, your identity as a high-flying career woman is set in stone. Make yourself indispensable and you can be resilient to the challenges of working motherhood. (I give some tips for effective career-building here).
I hope by reading this blog I have helped you feel more positive and hopeful about your future combining work and family. The key takeaway should be that you are in charge of your own destiny and that you have it within you to make it work. Be positive; be prepared, do the work – and know that there is support available when you need it. That is why I founded the Babyproof Your Career community – so we can conquer this issue together.
Mind-set, role models and banking your credit are just 3 of the issues tackled in the Babyproof Your Career online course, launching at the end of March. Combining resources, exercises, group and tutor support, the course will prepare you for making a success of working motherhood. Interested? Sign up here to register. Questions? Join our Babyproof LinkedIn or Facebook groups to find answers and connect with other brilliant career women like you.
Caroline Flanagan is a Keynote Speaker, Babyproof Coach and Author of Babyproof Your Career, The Secret to Balancing Work and Family so you can Enjoy It All. Caroline believes passionately in the dream of having it all, and founded Babyproof Your Life to train and prepare ambitious career women for the marathon of working parenthood so they can find their own way to #enjoyitall and #makeitwork. You can reach Caroline at firstname.lastname@example.org