Maternity in the Modern Workplace

Ambitious has always been a word that I would use to describe myself, and it used to carry the same connotation as what traditional society dictates. This definition implies that the worker has a life compartmentalized into two areas: work and leisure. After a series of events, I realized that this model is overly simplistic and, frankly, a dangerous illusion. In this piece, I want to tell you about my journey and how the concept of ambition got a different meaning to me. I still consider myself very ambitious—I just define it differently now.

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A turning point was when I had my first child, was in a job that had a pressure-cooker type environment, and found myself queuing for the toboggan in a Madrid neighborhood park after nursery pick-up whilst checking emails and delaying a conference call with Chile because I had to breastfeed. I thought, “This is not healthy and definitely cannot be sustainable,” and that was after taking a longer maternity leave than most women do. For the first time I thought about all the other women that needed to keep up with the ambition definition in and out of the workplace.

With such teeny parental leaves stipulated, most Spanish women—who can afford it—take extra unpaid leave, and a lot more simply leave the workforce entirely or transition to part-time work, as the amount of time off and money on offer matter[1]. Some would call it a “choice,” but it’s a bit absurd as you are essentially left with no options apart from the children not being cared for and the housework (and all other invisible workload) not being done.

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Taking this into account and after much deliberation, my partner and I decided to take our chances and move to the south of Spain, to Málaga, which was relatively closer to both our families. I was now part of those women who had left the workforce. I was lucky enough to have chosen an infinitely supportive partner and privileged enough to be able to choose to stop working for a year and dedicate myself to my little boy.

That experience turned out to be eye-opening, and I can now say that stay-at-home mums have the hardest job and are most definitely undervalued—and I’ve tried both. This lack of value definitely comes from the myth we’ve been fed that “time is money.” It is true what they say that being at home is harder on your sanity and being at work harder on your heart… During the year I decided to stay at home, I had to learn to redefine myself: Would ambitious still apply? How would I answer the second question after “What’s your name?” which is always “What do you do?”

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That step back from paid work—although not a break from actual work—had me thinking about my return to the workforce and what kind of company setting I would like to join, and that included everything from industry to culture.

Up until that moment, my background had been in civil engineering, in industries such as oil and gas and mining, all multinational, traditional, and male dominated, where I had always been the youngest and almost always the only woman in the team. That was true in the three EU countries I’ve worked in.

So now, my focus was on being able to work flexibly and from home without being penalized or having my career stagnate whilst being challenged in a modern industry that has a future. I became very particular in my research for the right workplace. (We all know that the systematic use of words such as “diverse,” “inclusive,” or “flexible” on some company websites are sometimes just that: buzzwords.)

When I came across Avature, I was ready and excited to start up my career again since my son was more independent. I read nearly every post in the company’s blog before applying, and the culture seemed to shine through: multicultural, flexible, with a focus on teamwork, positions based on skills and not job titles… It was music to my ears. This post about gender perspective particularly stood out. All of these characteristics became even more apparent during the interview process, but something unexpected happened in the middle: One or two weeks before the meeting to discuss the offer, I found out I was six weeks pregnant. Even though I was sure I wanted another child, my first reactions were total surprise, shock, and dread as it was not planned and I was so ready to go on to another step of life that didn’t include nappies, at least for a while…

The usual insecurities came up:

  • Should I mention the pregnancy straight away or would they cancel the offer?
  • Six weeks is too early, what if I lose the baby?
  • Will I be able to show the best of myself during the intense nauseous first trimester?
  • Will the opportunities presented be cut short because of the looming maternity leave I’ll be taking eventually?
  • I’m already struggling to make it work with a toddler, how will it be with two?

All these questions spring from the archaic instilled idea that at work, along with the mainstream definition of ambition, there is no space for life and for that third category that is neither work nor leisure. This is so even when it is a fact that no component of society, including companies, could survive without the invisible, unpaid work carers do. Caretaking, in general, of a dependent being regardless of age is necessary, and a radical overhaul of the culture of paid work is needed so that we can design a workplace model who’s mantra isn’t “Work as if you didn’t have children and raise them as if you didn’t work.”

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So for the time being, and after going through all of the above questions, I decided I was going to start my journey at Avature but wait a bit more to announce my pregnancy.

Getting into a new routine as a family with a toddler and making the schedules work whilst working from home was challenging and quite an adjustment—many of you already know this from the pandemic. I must admit we all do the best we can and most of us have no idea what it is we’re doing exactly. However, I did find the Fair Play card game (from the book by the same name by Eve Rodsky) really useful to organize tasks with your partner, no matter what partnership you are in, even if it’s just roommates. It was also big for me, in the midst of a 100% remote onboarding process for the first time, to discover a group named “Femininjas” in Avature’s social platform called DNA. This group creates a space for like-minded women to debate, recommend, vent, share feminist content, and simply connect in another way. To make things better, the wider EMEA Account Management team, which I joined, was well and truly multicultural, making the buzzword a reality. All these elements helped make my adaptation a much smoother process.

Eventually, I decided to announce my pregnancy to my team lead at 16 weeks, the time I needed to digest the news and feel more secure. The reaction was a joyful “Congratulations!” which was such a relief and a validation that I had chosen well. My one-on-one meetings with my team lead always included a small check-in to see how I was doing with the pregnancy and how I felt about the company, which normalized the whole process.

My previous worries were mostly wiped away when it came to pregnancy as a career barrier or paying the “motherhood penalty” as during this time I got involved in new projects, such as being part of the Avaturians who do the logic interviews for candidates and being offered to take on a new role as SME (Subject Matter Expert) for system adoption for clients just weeks before going on leave. I worked hard in the two months before my leave and well into my 36th week to make sure I left my work in the tidiest possible state and to ensure smooth handovers for my colleagues taking over.

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There are mixed feelings at this stage: eagerness to take a break before childbirth and the tough postpartum months ahead, but also sadness that I’m leaving for six months just as I was getting used to my new work routine. That’s where I noticed that ambitious trait of mine that has always been there: Yes, I value time spent with my child and I will be taking more time “off” than the law offers, but that co-exists with my hunger for a challenge and leaning into new responsibilities when society expects you to lean so far back that you lose balance and drop out. Consciously looking for a company with values that come as close as possible to mine has been key to enabling me to exercise, rediscover, and reclaim this new definition of what ambition is.

We still have a long way to go, but making this topic visible is a key step in the right direction of continuous improvement when it comes to making the modern workplace truly inclusive and human.

 

Sources

  • Criado Perez, C. (2019). Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Abrams Press.
  • Rodsky, E. (2019). Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live). G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

 

[1] Some companies noticed this and increased their maternity leave from three months at partial pay to five months at full pay: the attrition dropped 50%. Evidence-based parental leave policies won’t be the answer to all our issues, naturally, as more often than not they are made in gender-blind ways that most times end up exacerbating the problems they are trying to fix. A very common error is thinking “equality” is reached by applying “identical” measures, and here is a great example: In a few US universities, an extra year per child is given to parents to be able to earn tenure. Except, gestating and giving birth isn’t exactly a gender-neutral event, which means that whilst during this year women may be (at varying degrees) throwing-up, plugged to a breast pump, or breastfeeding, men will be dedicating the extra year to their research. An analysis found that the policy led to a 22% decline in women’s chances of gaining tenure at their first job whilst men’s chances increased by 19% giving a leg up not to “parents,” as was intended, but to men.