Commentary: Supporting mothers at work is also about individual choices
The White Paper on Women’s Development has some 25 action plans and a key player in this is the employer. While company policies are long overdue for change, what mothers want is critical to this conversation too, says CNA's Crispina Robert.
SINGAPORE: After several years working on the news desk, I was asked to consider taking on the role of editing a parenting magazine. I went for the interview and got the job.
But two months later, I found I was pregnant with my second child. Which would mean that just five months into my new role, I would give birth and go on maternity leave.
I rang the general manager and told him I was pregnant and would understand if he wanted to look for someone else, seeing how a major task of revamping the magazine may be disrupted with an editor on maternity leave.
His response both startled and amazed me. “The majority of my staff are women. And pregnancy is part and parcel of life. We will just arrange for someone to stand in while you are away,” he said.
Thinking back now, I realise how powerful something as simple as a “don’t worry, we will work around it” is. Like many women, I assumed that pregnancy, childbirth and mothering in general, were impediments to work. Because they soak up a lot of private time and mental bandwidth, they have an impact on work, which is supposed to be free of any personal impositions.
There’s ample research on what is termed a “motherhood penalty” – when women have children, there is an impact on their wages and career trajectory. Compared to childless women or men, mothers often have to cut back hours, take extended time off, convert to part-time employment or pass up overseas postings and promotions because it would mean less time with family.
These cumulatively have an impact on how far they progress and how much they earn in the long run compared to their male and childless women counterparts.
There is a growing call, especially against the backdrop of falling fertility in Singapore, for employers to adopt a far more flexible approach so women can handle both their work and family commitments without having to choose one over the other or worse, feel guilty about their choices.
This is a big plank in the White Paper on Women's Development released on Monday (Mar 28). Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs) should be a “workplace norm” and employers will be given a new set of guidelines on what they are and how to consider these requests fairly.
EMPLOYERS PLAY AN OVERSIZED ROLE
The onus is heavily skewed towards employers to ensure they create the kind of environment that allows for a woman to do both if she wishes.
Over the years, the movement to strengthen and educate employers not to discriminate on grounds of gender or family responsibilities has become more robust, especially with the setting up of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP).
Because the power difference is so vast between an employee and her company, clear HR policies and structures are critical in whether women continue to stay on in their roles and if industries continue to retain their talents and skills. This is especially pertinent when the female employment rate in 2021 was at 75 per cent, up from 53 per cent in 1994 according to data given in the White Paper.
I have seen how some HR policies have a direct impact on women. For instance, it was a common practice to give someone a lower band during appraisals because she was away on maternity leave. I found this to be quite perplexing.
If a woman’s absence did not affect work outcomes – let’s say, whatever annual targets were set for her were fulfilled to a reasonable degree, there should be no difference in how she was assessed with others in her cohort.
In fact, she should be valued even more for having successfully kept a new human being alive while working.
HOW EMPLOYEES BEHAVE MATTERS TOO
While employers do have an outsized role to play in supporting motherhood and families in general, there must be greater discussion around the role of individuals too.
I have been in teams where the entire group is made up of women. In fact, at the magazine I worked for, every single team member was a woman, the majority were mothers and amongst us there were easily seven children under the age of five at the time.
And because of this unique make-up, not a week could go by without someone calling in to say they couldn’t come in because a child was sick. It was easy to pick up the slack on most days but if a critical member was out during peak production time, it meant someone else had to sacrifice personal time to ensure timelines were met. Or paid freelancers had to fill in.
Having worked with women, I have found that some mothers want conflicting things and that can complicate things at work. For instance, some want absolutely no live-in help when it comes to raising their children.
So, they rely on childcare or babysitters while they work and in my experience, this is somewhat of a precarious existence. Without reliable support, this path can create huge stresses for parents – and employers as a result.
Kids get sick, babysitters tap out, husbands have to go on work related travel for weeks. If the mum is carrying the mental and physical load of this caregiving and have to meet work demands, it leads to exhaustion. It is so much harder to focus on work effectively.
Granted, this is complex because no family has the same dynamics – some prize privacy over live-in help, some cannot afford domestic helpers, while others need to work because full time mothering is just not something they can do and are therefore happy to outsource it almost completely.
When it comes down to it, barring very exceptional circumstances when a serious illness or unexpected event involving children happens, all parents need to balance their work commitments with their family if they choose to do both.
In other words, they can’t have their cake and eat it too – some sacrifice will be necessary to meet both objectives.
A NEW NORMAL FOR WORKING MOTHERS
The irony of my own journey is that as my responsibilities grew, so did my guilt. After struggling for a spell, I decided I should do myself, my family and my employer a favour and choose one thing and do it as well as I could.
When I told my boss I was quitting, she sighed and said it was a waste. It did feel like a “waste” but the next seven years I spent taking on part-time work while raising my boys were good years and now that they are grown, I can see the dividends in that decision.
Yet I can’t help but wonder if there were more radical options available back then – like completely working from home, job sharing or even a four-day work week without a cliff drop in salary and benefits, would I have stayed, especially since I loved what I did?
I may have, but 15 years ago, they were simply not on the table.
The pandemic has been a gift in one sense – it showed employers that face time does not equal productivity. You don’t ever have to see your employees but the work is done and in some cases, exceptionally well because now, the shackles of commute and meandering meetings have been cut clean off.
Employers will come under greater pressure to find ways to create proper structures that prioritise flexibility for parents. It simply is the most logical thing to do to retain more than half the workforce.
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But it also means parents accept there may be some sacrifices on both ends of the stick if they want to have children and keep a fulfilling career going.
It may mean logging off at 4pm to tend to children and spend precious time with them and logging on at 8pm to catch up on work. It is entirely possible (indeed quite reasonable) if we don’t hit our ideal targets on both counts.
I have seen working mothers feel inordinately guilty when their children don’t do well in major exams and wonder where they went wrong. The point is they didn’t. It was just an outcome of their choice.
If we accept there will be some leakages and imperfect outcomes, all that’s left is to be honest about it and communicate them clearly with everyone.
Because when you choose to do two big things, everyone must work to ensure that one doesn’t come at the expense of another.
Crispina Robert is an editor at CNA Digital where she oversees podcasts.