Writing Wonder Women has been a journey of discovery for me personally. I have learnt so much from listening to so many inspiring women and then from researching stories of other women discovering their successes and how they overcame the challenges they too often faced.
I have also learnt a lot during the actual co-authoring of the book. Part of that process was the regular discussions and debates, Katy Mousinho and I would have, exploring ideas and testing out our theories.
One theme we knew we wanted to understand better was motherhood and its impact on women in marketing’s careers. For us it seemed to be one of the biggest issues that marketing departments, agencies and consultancies need to consider more.
As I am prone to do, I started our discussion by taking a deliberately provocative stance – namely that women who took a year out of their career shouldn’t expect to come back at the same level as their direct peers. Those peers would now have had a year’s more direct experience and if a week in politics is a long time, a year in marketing can be an era.
However, as we talked to the women and Katy drew on her own experience as a mother of four, different aspects began to emerge.
Stories where women who had taken time out and wanted to come back had to do so at a lower managerial level than when they left were disappointing. We heard about the common practice whereby mums-to-be are regularly, even frequently, asked “Are you going to come back?”, “How are you going to cope with childcare?” while their husbands are never asked the same question.
We came across examples of how even well-meaning (male) managers’ decisions can lead to disadvantaging women. One example was the manager of a women who has recently returned to work, thinking she must have enough on her plate, what with a young child and coming back to work, decided not to ask her to go to an international conference. He sent someone else.
She was never asked about whether she wanted to go or not and when she saw a colleague go in ‘her place’ felt that she was being over-looked.
What also began to emerge was that rather than the time out having a negative effect on women- mothers – many felt that it actually helped them become better marketers and better leaders. As one interviewee put it, “It didn’t improve my IQ, but boy did it improve my EQ”.
Many women talked about how much becoming a parent taught them about coping with new situations, with constant pressure, with multi-tasing. They talked about how it helped them develop even more empathy and increased their ability ‘to walk in other people’s shoes’. There is also a saying that “if you can negotiate with a two-year old you can negotiate with anyone” which rang true for many of them.
Interesting when we asked these women about what advice their would give other women, many simply said “choose your husband, partner carefully.”
As we approached finishing the book and were writing our conclusions, it was obvious that Motherhood needs to be addressed. We were jokingly calling it, ‘The Parent Trap” what with the evidence that on average having a child slows down a women’s career, while often accelerating a man’s onward path.
It had become clear that while progress had been made in many areas of women’s equality, motherhood is till for most a brake on a their career. As Rebecca Shamburgh said, “it’s not a glass ceiling, it’s a sticky floor”. The attitudes and unconscious biases, the still prevalent expectation that primary childcare (and indeed homecare) falls to the mother are issues with which our industry needs to wrestle.
We are not advocating that every woman rushes back to work, nor that a choice to focus on parenting is a bad thing whichever parent does it. We are however advocating seeing the positive aspects on becoming a parent – a mother – can and does have on your career and your skills as a marketer.
We also went back to our initial discussions about the impact of taking a year out and I will be the first to admit that I wouldn’t argue the case anymore. In fact, I would champion the opposite view that women who become mothers should come back at the same level or even at a higher one.