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Raising the Future: Motherhood, Career and Gender Equality in the Workplace

To truly create change and stand for gender equality, equity and justice, we need to act differently and encourage others to do the same. In sharing this personal story from within our team, we hope that people will reflect on their assumptions and that organisations consider their practice. Together we can move the needle.

TreeSisters Executive Director, Georgina Gorman:

"From very early on, working in a corporate environment, I was acutely aware of the expectation that as a woman* of childbearing age, I may one day be seen as a liability. It was framed as a choice, either focus on your career OR have children. You can't have both.

'Oh, you're getting married. It'll be kids next?'.

'I’m not asking you this as your manager, just interested.’

‘Do you think you'll have a family one day?'

'I’m not legally allowed to say this, but management might think you'll leave to have children in the next few years. It might be worth mentioning that you don't want children soon.’

‘We nearly went bankrupt when all the women on one team went on maternity leave at the same time, so I’m not saying you can’t, but if you could wait a few years until we are more stable, that would be great!’.

I knew the answers they wanted to hear from me, and I knew if I didn’t conform, my career would be impacted.

These comments can be detrimental, no matter how well intended. Pregnancy, pregnancy-related issues and choosing to grow a family are deeply personal. They also assume all women will want or can have children, which is harmful in the first place. Even if a person does want biological children, it can be a challenging journey that looks different for everyone. We don’t (and shouldn’t need to) know another person’s journey. Talking about these issues should be led by the individual themselves if they feel comfortable, not by their co-workers or managers commenting or asking questions.

I had ingrained the belief that children would impact my career. And with good reason. It’s unspoken, but it’s always there below the surface. We see it when being passed up for promotions because we’ve gotten married or “we’re at that age”. We see it when women only move up the career ladder after passing the society-determined 'fertility window' and are now viewed by the organisation as a ‘safe option’ to increase their gender equality statistics.

So as a young, ambitious woman, I knew I had limited time to push for career progression. At a certain point, I would reach a cliff and need to accept that my ability to progress would be limited. Despite always knowing I wanted to be a mum one day, this hugely impacted my view of having children. I needed to weigh up the pros and cons and be ready to make the career sacrifice. This time-limited window pushed me to work harder than was probably healthy. Yet, I still encountered the same gender bias, just unrelated to pregnancy. On one occasion, a manager slipped up, and I found out I was paid less than someone about to be recruited into a job I had been holding and would continue to supervise. I was once told by a senior leader my insistence on being formally named in a role I was already performing came across as me 'having an ego', and she didn't like that. Something I doubt would have been said to a male colleague; they would have been considered ambitious instead. That was meant to be my cue to stop asking for recognition. Instead, I gave an ultimatum that I would give the organisation six months to give me the title and pay equal to the work I was already doing. When they didn’t, I handed in my notice. I genuinely heard on the grapevine that the recruitment team had been instructed to find a male candidate as my replacement.

These examples of gender bias and stereotypes were the final straw that created a fire in me to make a difference for women. A passion that ultimately brought me to TreeSisters.

So why am I sharing all this? After nearly two years at TreeSisters and the past six months acting as Interim Executive Director, the Board informed me that they would like me to take on the role permanently. Following a conversation only weeks before when I told the Board I was expecting a baby in May.

All my fears from past experiences were present when my husband and I decided to start trying. I was prepared for that to signal the slow-down, or even pause, of my career. Those fears were even greater when I fell pregnant soon after taking on the interim role. Even though we are an organisation fighting for women’s empowerment and equity, we are still an organisation. More than that, we are a charity with limited resources and a small team in the middle of a vast transformation. Our Board of Trustees are incredible and lovely people, and I expected they would be happy for me. Still, I also expected there was a good chance that this would signal the end of my interim position. This is the patriarchal system and reality we live in, after all.

Instead, the Board shared not only their congratulations but also their wish to make my position permanent. They have shown such profound support, care and flexibility. I can only express my gratitude and appreciation. Women’s empowerment takes on many forms, but this was so affirming for me, and I am truly proud to be part of an organisation showing such integrity.

Having children shouldn’t be the end of a career. It is the responsibility of organisations to ensure they have the support and structure in place to ensure that parents are supported. Here are a few examples of how that’s possible:

  • Promote based on merit, including women of all ages. If women aren’t being selected for promotion, review your criteria for those decisions and reflect on what biases may be at play.

  • If you are not legally allowed to ask a question, don’t ask it.

  • Create a culture that doesn’t allow negative comments and ‘jokes’ based on stereotypes.

  • Have a robust family-friendly policy for all situations (maternity, paternity/partner, adoption, surrogacy etc.)

  • Provide support for re-entry to the workplace when people return from family leave. Make it visible to every team member that anyone choosing to grow their family will be treated fairly and with kindness at every point in the journey and that it hasn’t and will not impact their career.

As an individual and co-worker, you can also support a healthier, more supportive workplace by letting people share their personal experiences and journeys with you. Don’t ask invasive questions or make public comments or assumptions, and call out others when you see this happening. Also, if you are able, question managers who have made a poor promotion or hiring decision which may be due to gender bias. Stand with your colleagues to create change.

I want to thank the Board again, the team, our partners and network for their support and encouragement throughout this experience. I don’t take the responsibility of being TreeSisters Executive Director lightly. Rather, I have more incentive than ever to do my utmost for this organisation. Not only to live up to the example set by the Board to be strong in our integrity, be equality-driven and stand for the rights of others, but because the future of our planet, the one my child will inherit, is at stake. No pressure."

TreeSisters Chair of the Board, Sital Punja:

"TreeSisters has always been about gender balance and female empowerment. When I was elected Chair, I felt TreeSisters needed to do more than talk the talk and start putting everything we believed in into practice.

Georgina’s wonderful pregnancy news was an ideal opportunity to do things differently. It took me back to when I fell pregnant and how scared I was at losing my job, position and opportunities. How I wished then for women leaders to take a stand and demonstrate that having children doesn’t need to stop you from having a career. Witnessing a close friend in banking go through real trauma to negotiate her way back to work after having her first child felt wrong and horrendous; surely, businesses can do better.

At TreeSisters, we truly value our staff. We want to create a healthy working environment with real opportunities for our team, not limitations. In the modern world, there are many ways leadership roles can operate in many ways, from flexible working to job sharing. Building a robust supporting team is half the battle.

More than anything, supporting our staff through one of the most marvellous journeys into motherhood and ensuring that they feel safe about a job and role they love is something I feel passionately about.

I am really proud that the Board and staff at TreeSisters have supported our decision to promote Georgina Gorman to Executive Director and will work with her on her return after maternity leave to ensure that both mother, child and charity align."

*Please note: I intentionally use the language ‘woman’ throughout this piece when referring to myself and the stereotypes applicable to folks who present as female within the workplace. This is not to ignore or exclude the experience of people assigned female at birth who do not identify or present as female and may also experience pregnancy. Those experiences in the workplace may have similarities and differences with the personal story I have shared, which I can’t speak to. The focus on women in this piece also doesn’t take away from the responsibility to create equality for partners of birthing people. The takeaway should remain the same: these biases and stereotypes can harm and negatively impact people differently.


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