READER REPORT:

Mum, wife, friend, warrior, nurse: Bring it all to the job you're in

"Have you asked my male counterparts the same question?"
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"Have you asked my male counterparts the same question?"

Where do I start?

I am a professional woman. An academic. I have juggled motherhood, high-pressure jobs and raising four children, one of whom has special needs.

What have I battled (I need to use the war metaphor as it feels like I must 'armour-up' and go in for the fight more than I care to)? Sure. In job interviews I have frequently been asked if I had children or intended to have more children. On each occasion I have responded with: 'Have you asked my male counterparts the same question?' 

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I am sure I have made no (boy)friends as a result.

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Think about it. A woman is immediately positioned to either wince (politely), feel pressured and cave with a response, or she is positioned to push back. I happen to be one of the latter 'dames'.

So you could say, that like many women across sectors, industries and workplaces, I have been confronted with this question when trying to acquire a job.

But it goes further.

On applying for a senior leadership role in a school, a senior male staff member (though, to be clear, not senior to me), suggested that if I had any chance of acquiring the job I'd need to stop wearing colourful clothes and shoes. "You want to come across as credible, don't you," he advised in an authoritarian manner.

This was in 2014. 2014! I am immediately positioned, as a woman, to either politely ignore such a remark or push back.

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It's the same with questions around motherhood. Here's the absolute pearler, a sorry case I am afraid of 'wait, there's more...': I presented an incident report to my male boss around the sexual harassment of myself and another female on staff by a male staff member. It was played down, diminished in importance and not duly followed up in a timely manner, forcing me to prompt my male boss again. I became visibly distressed, for myself and for the other young woman. His response? "Maybe you're not up to this job because you have a sick kid." 

His powers of observation were spot on – I did have a sick child. A child in a palliative state. A child with a life-threatening illness. Did this affect my ability to report harassment? No. Did this affect my ability to take an ethical stand? No. And yet, here we have it again, in its most vile form.

The suggestion that not only being a mother, but being the mother of a dying child, impaired my judgement, lessened my right to report horrific behaviour and meant that I was not performing in my role. 

This stuff alters you as a woman. I believe it can work in one of two ways; it either erodes your self-belief and 'runs interference' with your perceived potential in a workplace, or it creates a fire in your belly. For me it manifests as the latter.

And how might that be perceived in a workplace? "She gets her knickers in a twist", "she's stroppy", "she can't take a joke" - I don't need to go on, do I?

What do I say to female leaders I work with? Take your 'synchronous' selves in to any role you are in. All the pieces that make up the 'mosaic' of you; the mother, the wife, the partner, the friend, the warrior and the nurse. It's OK. Don't leave bits of you at the door to make others feel better. That's part of it.

The other work to be done is within organisations. Begin to cast a critical lens over your ways of working; your structures and infrastructures that prohibit women from fully engaging or benefitting from the workplace. Are your organisational values ('equality' and 'respect' usually make an appearance) just sentiment, or are you prepared to align your behaviour to them in the workplace?

Dare to take a look at these things. Perhaps then, you wouldn't have to ask the question in job interviews: 'So, do you have children?'.

Perhaps you might start the job interview off instead with: 'I'd like to tell you a little about how our organisation embraces families and invests in the individual without bias'. 

Now that would be an organisation I'd like to lead! 

 - Stuff Nation

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