Career Breaks: Why It’s a Feminist Issue

I remember when I finished high school, I had my whole life planned out. First, I would do my Bachelors, then I would travel, then I would do my Masters, then I would get a few years experience, then I would start my media empire, and then I would have some children while the media empire ran itself. Obviously your ideas and sense of self when you’re 17 are very different more than a decade down the track and today, at 30, although I can still achieve these things, it won’t be as easy-breezy as I thought. With a few close friends recently becoming or about to become mothers—and myself wanting to start a family soon—the issue of balancing a career and motherhood is one close to my heart. Enter: Norah Breekveldt’s book Career Interrupted: How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks. Sometimes just the right thing lands on your desk.

After spending 15 years working in government and big corporates, Norah opened her own consultancy, BreekThrough Strategies, 10 years ago. In the last seven years, she started focusing on coaching, then career coaching, and finally coaching women. In 2013, Norah’s first book, Sideways to the Top: 10 Stories of Successful Women That Will Change Your Thinking About Careers Forever was published, and late last year, her sophomore effort Career Interrupted hit the shelves. I chatted to Norah about inspirational women, Australia’s answer to the HeForShe movement, and why career breaks are a feminist issue.

Victoria: Can you tell me a bit about the work you do as part of your consultancy?

Norah: I coach men and women, but I’ve got a real passion for supporting women in creating successful careers and overcoming the obstacles they face that men don’t even experience.

What are some of these obstacles that women encounter in the workplace that men just don’t?

Well, most workplaces still operate under that traditional paradigm of the man being the real mover and shaker and the woman either being in a support role or staying at home and looking after the kids. That sort of bias can be conscious or unconscious, but it really impacts on the way women are viewed in the workforce and also the opportunities that they have compared to men.

There are lots of examples in both of my books. I’ve written about women who are considered to be high flyers, but once they have children, the attitude towards them changes and their opportunities for promotion and continuing their career trajectory seem to stall. And women already suffer a wage penalty (18.6% in Australia), which means that they have to work 66 days more than a man each year in order to have the same pay. Women also only have 59% superannuation contributions compared to men. So women suffer both financially and in terms of career prospects.

The fact that it is still ‘risky’ in this day and age for women to have a career break—be it to start a family or for another reason—is disheartening to say the least. Some of my friends are young mothers and I’ve thought about it from their points of view—they have built careers and been successful and the fact that there is a risk of losing that or being disadvantaged in the future is horrible. I think the only way it will be changed is if we start to fundamentally transform gender stereotypes in our societies. Do you agree?

I do agree. I think there have been some very well-meaning attempts such as quotas and paid parental leave, but I think the danger of those is that they entrench women in the roles of caregivers and support roles. For example, in terms of paid parental leave, women get 18 weeks paid parental leave, whereas the dads only get two weeks. So there’s an automatic assumption that women will take the burden of child rearing, and this is entrenched in legislation and enshrined in paid parental leave scheme.

The other issue is around support roles. I’ve worked in blokey environments all my life, but because I was in a support HR role, that was fine. But as soon as I tried to move into a supervisory role or operational role, doors immediately closed in my face. And that’s the problem with quotas: if you just say, right, our target is that 30% of all senior roles are held by women, what can happen is that you keep slotting women into marketing and HR, and men continue to hold senior, operational roles. Women sometimes don’t get the opportunity to move into CEO-type roles because they just don’t gain that necessary operational experience.

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Source: Vagenda Magazine

What are some of the mechanisms that can be put in place to start creating a more balanced workforce?

As you mention before, we have to challenge stereotypes, and I think that’s what it’s all about. So let’s forget about quotas in the way that I described them and let’s talk about putting women into hard-edged operational roles and putting men into support roles. Let’s see more male teachers. Let’s see more female operation managers running oil refineries and production lines. Let’s mix it up so gender doesn’t become an issue anymore. And let’s start moving towards an equitable paid parental scheme like the Swedish system, where you get 12 months paid parental leave, but the mother gets six months and the father gets six months, and if the father doesn’t take it, it’s lost. That’s a much more equitable way of sharing responsibilities and taking gender out of all of these decisions.

Let’s talk about your books. What made you take the plunge to write on these topics?

In the years I’ve spent coaching, I’ve observed that there are some really good success stories about women who do make it in the workplace, and yet we tend to focus on the negatives and the fact that women don’t make it. Of course we need to know the numbers—we need to know that only one in 10 women actually get to senior positions in Australia Stock Exchange 100 listed companies—but I thought let’s learn from what it is that creates success in women, and if there is a consistent pattern. And so I interviewed 10 women for my first book and they were amazing. They really took charge of their career and that was probably one of the most outstanding elements: they didn’t just sit back and think, if I do a good job, I’ll be recognized. They were assertive, they ensured that they had multiple ranges of experience so they weren’t just a specialist that moved up a specialist pipeline (which is why we called it Sideways to the Top).

And one of the real issues that came from these interviews was the career break—pretty much all of the women who had children would talk about how difficult the career break was and so I decided to write another book specifically about this issue. It’s such a big issue for women and young women don’t often realize it. They’d graduate from university, everything goes along swimmingly for the first 8–10 years, and then if anything happens like they want to have children or travel, suddenly they start finding that doors are closing and they start seeing their male contemporaries who have gone along equally with them rising, while they get stagnant in their careers, or their careers stall or stop completely.

And that’s what fascinates me—that despite decades of attempts at creating an equal workplace, we still have made very little progress. The wage gap is as big as ever and getting women in top positions is just as difficult as it was 20 or 30 years ago.

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Still a bit of Joan and Roger going on in modern workplaces (source: AMC)

Do you think this is changing at all?

When you look at statistics like the pay gap and number of women in senior positions, up until a couple of years ago, it was stagnant or declining. Australia is something like 26 in the world for women’s empowerment.

Which is pretty pathetic.

We’re a first-world country. It just shouldn’t be that way. On the other hand, there are initiatives—such as the Male Champions of Change that Elizabeth Broderick has implemented in a federal sense and Kate Jenkins has implemented in Victoria—that are starting to shift the agenda and conversation. Because we have to accept that men are still in the top positions and so for things to change, we have to engage men in the whole debate. People like David Morrison (2016 Australian of the Year), David Thodey, Telstra’s CEO, the head of IBM and managing partner of PwC—they’re all really powerful, influential men and engaging them in the process will create paths for change. David Thodey has said that every job can be done part-time or flexibly, and if not, why not? He’s broken down that issue of women needing to put up their hand and asking to work part-time.

I think that’s a real mechanism right there to get balance in the workplace. There’s still an expectation of people in part-time roles to do much more and I feel that there isn’t a full understanding of flexible work.

There are a lot of assumptions that it can’t work rather than how can we make it work. And I don’t see why positions can’t be job shared. One of the women in Career Interrupted, Lisa Croxford (lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills) talks about job share at a higher level. Job share is quite common among support roles like receptionists, admin, etc., but hers was the first legal role that was generating client fees that was job shared. We just need more examples of how this can work.

Career Interrupted has stories from 14 women working in diverse fields, from politics to the arts to business to education to human rights. How did you decide on the women to feature in this book?

I wanted to have a diversity of backgrounds but I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get that. So I co-opted people like Kate Jenkins and Mary-Jane Ierodiaconou, an associate judge in the Supreme Court, and sat down with them and said, this is my idea for a book, what do you think, and who do you think should be in it. I got names of people and contacted them and it just grew from there.

The other thing I wanted to do was include women who were at different stages of their careers. For example, Kelly O’Dwyer (Federal Member for Higgins) was just about to have her first baby and so I spoke to her about her expectations around that. Jodie Sizer (Principal, PwC Indigenous Consulting) was right in the throes of motherhood and was experiencing mom’s guilt about leaving her children. Then there are women like Anna Burke (Federal Member for Chisholm) and Frances Adamson (Australian Ambassador to China) who are now in their 50s and can look back and say, “it was tough but this is what I learned from it.”

Are any of the stories particularly inspiring to you?

They’re all inspiring in their own ways and I loved interviewing all the women. Jennifer Keyte (high-profile journalist and news presenter) has a great story. I loved interviewing Tracy Spicer (high-profile journalist and newsreader) because she’s really feisty and says it how it is—and I really got the sense about how difficult it is in media to assert yourself to be authentic. You’re meant to be a stereotype and if you deviate from that stereotype, you’re punished for it. It was extraordinary interviewing Jodie Sizer right in the middle of her motherhood guilt. Lucinda Nolan (Deputy Police Commissioner for Victoria) was fascinating—I mean the police force is probably the blokiest environment you can get. She was married to a cop and one of her children had a disability and she just struggled and struggled, and yet she was just so calm about it all.

Have you ever taken a career break?

Yes, but not to have children. I took a career break to change jobs and to complete my MBA. But I had struggles getting back into the workforce as well and there’s some overlap between any career break that you take.

It fascinates me that if you take a break to study, employers can’t see the value of that. You’re not just taking a year off to do nothing. Then again, taking a career break can happen for a multitude of reasons and should be your own business.

Well, exactly. I remember I told my employer that I needed to take a year off to complete my MBA and they just said no. So I had to resign and it just made no sense as they were an employer who employed MBAs all the time and yet they didn’t have the foresight to think, “well let’s just give Norah 12 months to do this so she can come back and be a much better consultant and a much more effective employee.”

And how easy is it to fill a 12-month contract? Very.

Exactly. On the other hand, Lucy Roland was given lots of time off to study, do a Masters and to do a marketing course and they were perfectly happy with that, but as soon as she said she was leaving to have the baby, they said well that’s it. You’re off the fast track and there won’t be more opportunities here for you. And it’s such an unjust approach grounded in all these beliefs that as if as soon as you become a mother, your brain turns to mush or you’re not as committed.

Have you got any personal strategies that can help women navigate career breaks successfully?

Definitely. The overriding thing for all women is not to underestimate the bias and stereotype that goes on when you become a mother. So you will have a manager who will say, “take as much time off as you need, don’t think about work, just enjoy motherhood, and then give us a call a couple of months before you’re ready to come back.” Well, that’s really well meaning but it’s actually a real career killer because you need to keep in touch the whole time. I’m not saying for a moment that women should work as hard after having children—a lot of women choose to step back and that’s absolutely fine. But the automatic assumption in most workplaces is that you’re going to take a step back and that you’re not going to be as interested in responsibility or travel or promotion as before you had children. That’s the thing that I think women have to constantly fight against. Taking charge and being proactive and being very clear about what you want—and if you want to continue your career, make sure you negotiate something that is really right for you.

And being able to work flexibly. What difference does it really make in most jobs if you’re working in the office or remotely? There have been lots of studies conducted around productivity of part-timers that show that part-timers are so much more productive than full-timers, particularly if you have a young child and you need to get back to that child. I remember when I was head of HR for one organization, the CEO came up to me and said, “Norah I know you’re really committed to your job because when I come into the car park in the morning, your car is there, and when I leave in the evening, your car is still there.’ And I thought, what because I’m physically in the office, it means I’m more productive or more effective? How does that work? That assumption that if you’re in the office for 12 hours that you’re a more committed person than if you’re in the office for 8 hours is just a fallacy. But people still hold onto those outdated assumptions, which women in particular have to challenge. Women are entitled to go back to the job they had or a job of equal seniority, and they’re absolutely entitled to strive for their careers just as hard as they want to after they’ve had children.

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Norah, second from left, celebrating International Women’s Day at Monash University (source: monash.edu.au)

What about just general career advice?

This applies to men and women—if you’re interested in getting to senior positions, get breadth of experience early on. Work across as many disciplines as you can and that will really help you when you get to middle and senior positions. So if you stream yourself to just finance or just HR or just operations, you’ll end up with a really narrow pipeline for promotion. Get breadth early and then you can specialize later in your career.

Finally, would you say career breaks are a feminist issue?

They absolute are because until we uncouple career breaks from gender and until we start seeing more men take parental leave and more women coming back to the workplace, women are going to miss out. That’s what I really hope for. I hope that when my granddaughter—who’s six months old—grows up and goes into the workforce, we won’t even have be having a conversation about gender. That she will be whoever she wants to be and that there will be equal opportunities for anyone to take breaks when they want, to pursue careers that they want, and to get ahead as far as they want.

I think women must also be very careful about choosing the right employer. Choose an organization that actually does what they preach. Don’t just consider if it has a diversity inclusion policy, but look at where the women are located. And look at what the CEO is saying. Is the CEO female or male, and if he’s male, is he really genuinely supporting and promoting opportunities in the workplace? I think if women start being savvier about choosing the employers that do those things then all those old-fashioned organizations that are run patriarchally by men are just going to lose the war for talent and will disappear. So we really have the power ourselves to vote with our feet and work in organizations that give us those choices.

Sideways to the Top: 10 Stories of Successful Women That Will Change Your Thinking About Careers Forever and Career Interrupted: How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks are both out through Melbourne Books.

Main image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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