I seem to be making a habit out of saying things that people don’t like hearing. Ready for it? Part time, working mother and stepmother. The language and the labels we choose are so impactful when discussing important issues like gender equality in the workplace, managing family and work commitments, and modern blended families. Phrases and titles like these can elicit highly pervasive responses and stereotypes that threaten us.
Some common statements I’ve recently read and heard include; “Don’t say part time only say working flexibly”, “I’m not answering the question how do I manage work and family because you wouldn’t ask a man”, “Yes my partner has children but I’m not a stepmother”. I’ve made each of these statements myself, but when I reflect on the impact of keeping these topics off limits I am moved to wonder why.
During National Families Week, please suspend judgement for a few moments and let me tell you how some of these conversation killers have shaped my professional and personal life over the past ten years and why this has been such a good thing.
When I met my now husband, he had two teenage daughters. Over the past ten years we have worked hard at ensuring our modern blended family is inclusive and loving. In Australia, one in four families is ‘blended’, while in the UK it’s one in three and US one in two. So while we’re not quite at US levels, a quarter of all Australian families are faced with the everyday challenges of making it work. This can be a challenging journey and not one where stepmothers’ experiences are well understood or even documented. I felt I needed to understand more and play a part in improving the negative stereotypes that led me to write my recently published book.
This was made possible as I returned from the first of two maternity leave stints, to a three day a week role. This part-time position was designed at my request and with support from my employer. I thought this arrangement may last for two to three years, and I am currently enjoying my ninth year. I’ve been promoted twice in the past two years working at NAB, my leaders have told me they like the difference and diversity my arrangement brings to their leadership teams.
Many employers now boast improved rates of women’s participation in their senior ranks, yet none collect data on how many part-time women are promoted. My experience has been that it can happen, and there are a handful of other women working the same way in executive teams at NAB. This is a handful more than many of our competitors. It’s important to call this out because our own NAB research has shown that women need to see role models for working part time and flexibly at senior levels to know it’s possible. Part-time status has a long association with being a ‘career killer’ so as this slowly changes it’s time to highlight the progress and allow more opportunities to flow.
Not all women need to work flexibly, but it has been great for me for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted more time with my young family. Secondly, I had a hankering to write a book about why women disliked being called stepmothers and shine a light on the great job they were doing despite their extremely low parental self esteem.
Would I have had the same experiences had my career progressed seamlessly without a requirement to juggle so many different things while fighting to stay relevant and in the game? I can’t imagine how.
National Families Week is about recognising and acknowledging the huge contribution families make to the fabric of society. Families do come in all shapes and sizes – this needs to be discussed, understood and celebrated.
By Sally Collins, General Manager Business Management, NAB Wealth