Life as we know it, is always inundated with difficult choices. We could be at crossroads - whether to move to greener pastures or stay, start a family now or later, take a career break or not? Many years ago (based on true accounts), Katie (not her real name) decided to take a career break to raise her family. It was something she never thought she would do. As a very KPI driven, successful, motivated employee in her 30’s, that was probably the toughest decision she ever made. The choice to be a stay home mum was made against the backdrop of bosses that didn’t want to let her go. The decision would have been different if there were certain infrastructures in place.
It was a decision she never regretted as she raised, watched, witnessed, laughed (cried sometimes), and slogged through days and nights being with her little girls. Nurturing and disciplining them. Imparting knowledge, values, and beliefs. Exemplifying independence through conduct. Mentoring, coaching, counselling the girls and always present to prep for any test or exam. She wore different hats depending on the time of the day or week. As time went by, she picked up many skills. She was a financial planner, party/event organiser, occasional social worker, handyman, baker, chef, seamstress (she would handmake costumes and props for school events), volunteer time as a representative in the neighbourhood community, and the list goes on.
Time came when she decided to go back to full-time work. Katie did everything she could possibly imagine - prepped for interviews, and whatever not but never anticipated how ugly it would be for women returning to the workforce after a career break. To illustrate this - at a particular interview she was called for, she was asked if she could manage her family and work full-time. Argh!!
This may interest you: Career or Motherhood?
Women! Stop discounting yourself
Post that interview, she began to question herself, her actions, and all previous decisions she made. She started to doubt her capability. She wondered if that was an end to her working life. Even on full days at home, when she accomplished 9 out of 10 to-do items, she would not pat herself on the back. When she had done some documentation work for the neighbourhood and removed them from a stagnant point and received compliments, she shied away and said, “it’s no big deal”. She took her value for granted. But why did she feel that way? Did that interview still haunt her? Were there other women suffering like her? In the same predicament?
At a recent virtual forum, organised by EGN Singapore, a members only professional network (‘hereinafter called Forum”), this habit of self-discounting by women was raised. Why do women downplay compliments? Why did Katie and other women employees deny themselves of praises and underplay their value?
Equality vs Equity
Moving on…Katie eventually got back to full time work. Carrying out, executing, and completing all assignments, like her peers. No distinction, no special treatment, because she was an equal to her peers. Equality at a workplace is about giving employees the same tools, same knowledge, same education, the same leadership programmes and opportunities to succeed. This all sounds great! But was it sufficient for an employee like Katie returning to the workforce after a career break? At the Forum, it was suggested that perhaps, the focus should be on equity. Equity is about equipping that employee with what he/she needs in that job to succeed. Suggested ways equity can be implemented at a workplace is through mentoring, coaching (see below for more) or participating in dynamic support groups.
Professional women generally have more obstacles along the way to reach a leadership role/managerial position than men. In addition to this, women have an average of extra seven (7) hours of unpaid extra work weekly at home - whether it is to care for children, for the aged or to run the household.
Infographic by Leaderonomics: Women Have More Obstacles than Men
With the additional duties and responsibilities at home, women generally tend to discount/dismiss themselves. Whether it is for a job opening or a promotion possibility. You will hear common responses such as “I can’t do it” or “I don’t meet all the criteria” even though they have the qualification or experience. This was something Katie struggled with too. Compare this with men, who will say “Take me, I can do it”. To support this - a true story was shared at the Forum. At one other seminar, the speaker asked the room filled by women and one (1) gentleman, “Who here is an expert in breastfeeding”. The only man in the room put his hand up and said, “I have seen my wife breastfeed, I am an expert.” Not one woman owned up to be an expert although probably there were many who were breastfeeding or have breastfed before. Astounding isn’t it!
The same is said to apply when women are being interviewed. Women may not be typically as confident as selling themselves compared to an average man who will be very confident in selling his own skill. Why do women undervalue themselves? Has it got to do with the narratives women hear all the time?
Inclusion and diversity
Women at leadership roles are still small in the corporate and business world. This is partly due to the culture and systems - that corporations are designed for men. And why is it that the best person for the job usually means the best man for the job? This narrative must be shattered. Leadership should not be gender specific.
Read more: Diversity Not Divert-sity That Bridges Gender Gaps
Instead, take on who is best for the company. With a mixed group of genders and ethnicities from different cultural background, there is diversity. And there is a positive correlation between diversity and group intelligence and company results.
“The current drive to increase the number of women on corporate boards in Europe, even by the means of a quota, is based on two arguments: firstly mixed boards take better decisions, which will lead to better results and, secondly, women on boards will eventually lead to more women in senior management,” says Annet Aris, Adjunct Professor of Strategy at INSEAD.
“For the first argument more and more research is being published which is at least showing a positive correlation between the number of female directors and company results. On the second point, whether women on boards have a positive effect on female management, there is so far very little academic proof.”
Is your organisation really taking the best person for the job?
Collective effort to push for changes
Even with a well-educated generation leading us today, change is slow. Why are women penalised for having children and keeping a job? Cultures and systems have to change. Policies initially designed by men for men have to be changed. The awareness through meaningful conversations, employee engagement and education can happen if leaders are open and willing to listen and engage. The rest will follow. Here are some tools your organisation can use to implement and manage change.
Engagement and wellness are not mutually exclusive. But how often are leaders in organisations engaging with their employees or compiling feedback (whether through townhall meetings, polls, engagement apps) on the following matters?
- Women in leadership roles, women with salary disparity, women with poor promotion possibilities. These issues have their set of challenges.
- Policies for returning stay home mums or dads.
- Ways to improve and create better working space.
- Support system to enable the employees to perform their job effectively.
- Flexi hours, remote and hybrid working or job-sharing policies for employees with families.
- Ways to ease stress or address mental health.
- Housing a childcare for new parent employees who have no support at home.
Leaders must recognise the undeniable truth that if they want to retain talent, have higher productivity and better returns, they have to invest in their people. Having structures and processes such as employee engagement platforms are not only good to collect feedback from employees but also help build and solidify bonds between employers and employees.
It is imperative that data compiled from such processes have to be analysed, feedback must be acted upon, and changes have to be made, failing which data will remain just as data.
“Goals are only wishes unless you have a plan” - Melinda Gates.
Impactful change can be made if there is concerted effort put in not just by leaders of organisations but community as a whole.
Coaching and mentoring
Coaching is a highly effective tool to effect behavioural and attitude change of employees, especially in situations when self-confidence is low or there is habit of self-discounting, an antidote to those returning to work after a career break, like Katie.
Coaching is also beneficial to leaders or business owners as it lends different perspectives, provide clarity on strategies, allow for introspection (especially when effecting change to support the employees’ needs) and is an often-employed method to keep leaders on track.
Supplementary read: How to Coach a CEO
Mentoring within an organisation is a platform that provides the mentee to get the desired support and advise, guidance (experienced mentors brings fresh perspective), know-how and harness their talent. A more self-confident employee will make better decisions, achieve their desired goals, take on career opportunities or job promotions and will be more at ease handling challenges facing him/her. Organisations with mentorship programmes in built in their system enhance employee skill and has far reaching impact on employee development. This has a cascading effect and is a win-win for all.
“No country can truly develop if half its population is left behind.” – Justine Greening.
Dear employers, you can prevent losing good talent by using technology like Happily (or Budaya for those from Indonesia) to get feedback and engage with employees. This app is an amazing engagement app built for organisations to drive engagement amongst employees. It has amazing analytics and also provides activities for employees to be fully immersed in the organisation's culture and values. To find out more, click here or email firstname.lastname@example.org