A few weeks ago, I was listening to a very senior New Zealand business woman speak on how she had managed to combine her career with motherhood. I have limitless respect for this woman, and in particular for what she’s achieved. Between the pressures of a life in the (ever-demanding) business world and the (ever-more-demanding) world of children, she’s been a bit of a hero in my eyes.
But it broke my heart to hear her speak of how she had to raise her children. The story behind the success reads differently to the success story itself, if that makes sense. She said that when she decided to have a career, she placed ‘structure’ around her children, so that their needs were met and she’d be able to work. When I read between the lines, it was clear that this ‘structure’ basically equated to ‘sacrifice’. Time with her children was sacrificed to achieve her career. I wondered what the structure looked like and how she really felt about (most likely) missing out on those key milestones we should be sharing with our children. These are the things that we as parents look forward to, and more importantly, the things our children remember.
The saddest part for me was that while she was referencing things that happened 20–30 years ago, our society and the expectation it places on women in business (let’s be honest, women in general) haven’t noticeably changed. In fact, if anything we are now touted as ‘super women’ who can and should do everything. To me, as a working mum, that message is not acceptable, not aspirational and not inspirational. Are we really telling young women that the only way we can have a family and raise children is through deprioritizing one of the most important aspects of our lives? To be honest, I think the same also goes for men – why must we choose?
I get it, the juggle isn’t easy. It’s certainly not a woman’s fault for having to make that choice; it’s the business community and our wider society that needs to stop and take note. We need to take responsibility here. We need to drive change and enable people to feel as if they can have a successful career and be present parents. To me, the debate is much wider than simply women being present with their children, but also we as employers actively saying that it’s ok – no, encouraged – for you to actively choose to be a parent alongside a successful career.
I admire Robert Rietbroek, CEO at PepsiCo, and his “Leader’s Leaving Loudly” policy. The basis is that team leaders feel no shame in leaving early to pick up their children:
“So for instance, if I go at 4pm to pick up my daughters, I will make sure I tell the people around me, ‘I’m going to pick up my children.’ Because if it’s okay for the boss, then it’s okay for middle management and new hires.”
When we implemented our parental leave scheme at My Food Bag (18 weeks of fully paid leave and an additional 6 parental sick days) we had such positive feedback, but we also heard the whispers. Why didn’t we just bank those dollars? Shouldn’t we just pay those staff members who were high performers more? How was this sustainable in the long term? Were we discriminating against people who didn’t have children?
Two years into the programme and five years into business, we haven’t looked back. Not once. We’ve welcomed 15 My Food Bag babies (with another 5 on the way – yes, they have ‘foodie names’) and in the process we’ve encouraged both mums and dads to stay at home with them. I believe that by prioritizing this important aspect of our team’s life, we’ve made a statement that our 150 team members and their families are important to us. That their wellbeing is important to us. That the children in our next generation are important to us. It’s not enough, but it’s certainly a start.
So how do we drive real change? Well first of all, I acknowledge that most companies don’t have the ability to provide the parental leave scheme that MFB does, but to be honest that’s completely irrelevant to me. We set the example and we believe that over time that example will become the standard.
What most employers can do is encourage their teams to be present parents. To put the structure around the parent rather than placing the structure around the child. Enabling parents to work flexible hours (where possible), working from home if they need to, planning critical meetings for hours that ‘are school friendly’ and simply just having a ‘family friendly’ office environment will enable parents to miss out less on those critical moments.
It’s up to us as leaders to drive that change. For us, that means that every day our team doesn’t see us before 9am (we love dropping our son at school)! We pick him up from work as much as we can – priceless moments. We go to doctor and dentist appointments. We don’t make excuses or feel awkward or guilty for being away. We simply priorities our family. And I hear you say, “but that’s normal right? That’s what mum and dads should do.” No, the fact is that it’s not normal for CEOs of companies to do that (in particular not one the size of My Food Bag).
But it’s our job to make it normal. Set the example, make it the standard.
Modern society demands of us to be available at all times of the day, we’re equipped with devices where work follows us home each day. It climbs into bed with us. We take this for granted but we haven’t quite figured out that at the same time, while work follows us home, home also follows us to work. And we need to make an allowance for this. So for now, we’re parents first with careers a second, not the other way around. We plan to continue leading the way, making practical changes to the status quo and investing in the important stuff in life – family, family, family.