Spring break is over, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and get back to normality. Thank goodness for that! For us last week was one of those weeks that would test any mother – schools closed for spring break, a 4 year old refusing to go to spring camp, pick up and drop off timings changed for the toddler who would still go to camp, both kids up multiple times in the nights and waking unusually early in the mornings, very little sleep for mama and then a double ear infection for the toddler requiring an immediate doctors visit, except of course, sod’s law, our doctor was completely booked up only giving us the option of waiting around for a fit in appointment – not fun for anyone in the waiting room with an exhausted toddler who has been screaming in pain for the last 3 hours and then of course medications, medications, medications. Add in a mother who works in a professional services career and here is a recipe for stress and suffering all round.
My little one was suffering so of course, as her mama I was stressed and suffering watching her suffer. However, despite being a corporate lawyer at an international firm, one thing I was not stressed about was work. Thankfully my work was not adding to our suffering.
In this same week I watched a good friend of mine go through almost exactly the same thing – kids off school for the holidays, husband travelling with work, one kid after the other getting sick, doctors visits, the lot. Not exactly the same thing though as she had to deal with a lot more stress and suffering, not only on account of her kids being sick but on account of trying to deal with that while also working in a professional career.
So why was she suffering and stressing more than me? It was certainly nothing to do with our respective mothering or time management skills. It was nothing to do with the relative sickness of our kids. It was nothing to do with the level of support we have at home (we are both lucky enough to have full time nannies to help around the house). It all came down to one thing – work.
She works full-time. I work part-time. She has to clock in all her hours in the office building. I have flexibility to work from home when needed. She is overloaded with work which often requires her to work late nights and even had her in the office at the weekend. My workload is carefully managed, not just by me but by my line managers and the team I have around me who know that I work limited hours and bear that in mind whenever they need support from me. She is often forced to fit her family around her work, even though it was never supposed to be that way when she took the job. My work fits around my family.
I know I am lucky to have found a professional job that works for me and my family. From day one I have felt supported in my role as a mother yet valued for my hard earned professional qualifications and senior level experience. During my 8+ years in Dubai I have known a few other mothers in my field who have been able to work part time or flexibly but it is far from the norm and these opportunities don’t often come up. In fact one of the reasons I went back to work last September when Monkey started school was that the arrangement on offer was too good to turn down, I knew I wanted to go back to work at some point but I didn’t know if I would be able to find something that worked for my family. It was so rare to find such an opportunity in the UAE. I still don’t have it perfect though. I did have to change my day-to-day role to make the arrangement work in my industry and this of course came with a pay cut to my former high-flying track – I’m no longer working on the sexy, big-ticket corporate deals that will be making headlines or winning deal of the year in industry circles but those require 24/7 availability and that is too high a price for me to pay right now, my kids need me more than I need that career glory right now so that is a sacrifice I am willing to make. As for plans for advancement and partnership, they are parked for now, but not forever. However, all of that doesn’t stop me adding real value to my team at work and my family at home. I bring in a valuable income that goes towards supporting our family at home and I provide senior level support to my team and my clients at work, all on a schedule that works for all of us and I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to be both working and a parent at the same time.
They may not be the norm and they may be rare but flexible working opportunities for mothers do exist or can be made to exist if you can connect with the right people. It shouldn’t be the case that women have to choose between being mothers or continuing their professional careers. When women become mothers the only choice should be about whether or not (and when) they want to go back to work. And if they don’t have that choice because of financial pressures or they decide they do want to go back to work, then there should be the option of flexibility. Whether that is flexibility to work part-time, flexibility to work hours around kids’ schedules or flexibility to work from home – with all the technology available these days does it really matter where work is done as long as it is done? There should be more choice.
However, before there can be choice, and for that to even be meaningful in practice, there needs to be support. Support from employers, line managers and colleagues who understand the pressures of motherhood while valuing the contributions that can be made by so many highly educated and talented women here in the UAE who also happen to be mothers. There is a vast untapped pool of talent currently going wasted in the UAE and wider region – women who want to work, have the skills and experience needed to succeed but for whom the offers on the table don’t stack up when they factor in the cost and type of childcare available, the demanding working hours eating into family time or the logistical demands of bringing up a young family. It’s not just about talking the talk, organisations need to walk the walk – offer job opportunities to mothers that will enable them to put their skills and experience to use for the betterment of the company, the economy and society as a whole while allowing them to also fulfil their role as mothers at home. To offer that holy grail of working mothers – balance. The work/life balance. Because while our lives might have been all about work pre-kids, post-kids that can’t be the case. But all that work pre-kids counts for something and shouldn’t be the end of meaningful work in our lives outside the home if that is what we choose.
I am very passionate about this subject, I feel all mothers should be presented with opportunities like I have been, all mothers should have the freedom of choice when it comes to work and all sectors of business and society can and will benefit from greater participation by women and mothers, because, in the words of Barack Obama, when women succeed, whole countries can succeed.
So you can imagine how pleased I was to hear of not one but two organisations recently set up in the UAE with the goal of getting mums back into work by matching them up with appropriate flexible roles, mentoring them to give them the skills and confidence they need to get back into the workplace and taking on the task of educating employers on the value that can be brought to organisations by employing mothers returning to work. There certainly is a lot of education to be done on this but it is encouraging to see these initiatives backed by well established recruitment consultants who have the experience and the contacts to make this work. The workshops to help mothers returning to work with skills and confidence levels is also an important element, often women are their own worst enemies by not believing in themselves and then not insisting on what they deserve, whether that is in salary, benefits, promotions or working arrangements. The two organisations are Mums at Work and Hopscotch.
Mums at Work has been founded by Louise Karim with financial backing from GCC recruitment firm Mackenzie Jones. To find out more or register your interest you can go to the Mums at Work website or Facebook page.
Hopscotch has been set up as a subsidiary of the MCG Group of companies and is the brainchild of Helen McGuire and CEO of the group, Justine McGuire. For more information you can visit the Hopscotch Facebook page or Linked In profile.
It should be a win-win situation for all involved. Mums returning work should find more flexible opportunities available to them while employers are likely to get highly skilled and motivated employees giving better value – you will not find an employee more focussed or with better organisational, multi-tasking, time management and problem solving skills than a mother with a to-do list and a clock ticking down to school pick up time!
Of course getting mums back to work is only part of the wider picture. A more reasonable maternity package would help many women stay in their original jobs in the first place rather than being forced to quit when faced with the reality of only 45 days maternity leave. I really hope change will come in this area soon too. The Sharjah Government led the charge with increases to the maternity packages of their employees and there are rumblings of the same to come in Dubai but this also needs to extend into the private sector. It’s so difficult to understand why this isn’t the case already when so many international organisations out here are from jurisdictions where 6, 9, 12 month maternity leave packages are perfectly normal and result in a much higher return to work rate. The right to 45 days maternity leave under the UAE Labour Law is a minimum entitlement and it is about time international companies stopped hiding behind that.
There are also issues relating to promotion and progression for women who have stayed in or returned to the workplace. Having talented, hard working, experienced women recognised for their strengths as leaders and placed in leaderships positions, whether as partners, CEO’s or board members. But that is another rant for another day, you’ve probably heard quite enough of me on this already.
I will just leave you with this quote from Anne-Marie Slaughter, an international lawyer, academic and mother of two:
“I feel empowered. Why shouldn’t a workplace be customised to fit women as much as it is to fit men? We are large in number. We can have great influence and power to figure things out for our daughters.”
If you haven’t already read her brilliant 2012 essay for The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t have it All, charting her experiences trying to balance a prestigious career and a family from Princeton to Washington D.C. and back again with fascinating insights from the lives of other hugely successful individuals in the public world and highlighting what needs to change before we can achieve real balance, I really recommend you do (it’s long though so don’t try to read it on your phone, wait till the kids are in bed!). Spoiler alert – flexibility is one key factor.
And then get out there, let’s customise those workplaces to suit us and our families and make this a complete non-issue for our daughters.
What are your experiences with trying to balance a family and work? Did you quit work when you became a mother, have you gone back, do you work full time, do you work part time? Leave me a comment below, I would love to hear from you.