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Social stigmas and stereotypes

A couple of months ago I was participating in an interview with an academic from the Macquarie Graduate School of Management on the experiences of executive women.  Kelvin, the interviewer, asked me whether as a woman leader, I’d experienced any social pressures or stereotypes that had impacted my decisions on parenting, work or both.  Or whether it impacts on the career choices of other women.

Without hesitation, my answer was “yes”.  But I gave it little more thought til a number of incidents over the past week or two reminded me just how much social pressure is out there.

When it comes to women, ambition and parenting, it seems everyone has an opinion.  When it comes to men, ambition is accepted irrespective of their parenting status.  Men are rarely even asked about their family status in the work context.  For women, the same could not be said.

Think I’m being far fetched?  Last month I came across a female partner of a law firm aged 42 who was pursued by a headhunter.  She agreed to meet with the headhunter and the first  question she was asked (seriously, the FIRST question!) was “So tell me about yourself.  Are you married?  Kids?”  On another occasion, a female executive arriving late to a meeting apologized that she had a sick child who took some time to settle before she could get away.  One of her male peers asked “who does look after your kids while you’re at work, anyway?”

The answer to both of these questions is clearly “that’s none of your business!”  And it isn’t.  I mean, when was the last time you asked one of your male colleagues who looks after his kids when he’s at work?  Or you asked a male candidate whether he has kids in the first place.  Yet this is a question I am asked practically every time I speak at an event, and was regularly asked in my executive career.  In my executive career or when I’m speaking on change management and leadership, it’s almost always men who ask, perhaps as their way of “getting to know me” (I’m being sarcastic).  When I’m speaking on women in the workplace, it’s usually women who ask – perhaps as a way to benchmark themselves against me.  Either way, the men around me are never asked.

Then we have our supporters in the sisterhood, like Mem Fox the children’s author who reported last week across mainstream media that childcare for infants is nothing short of “child abuse”.  “I don’t know why some people have children at all if they know that they can only take a few weeks off work,” she said.  Possibly for the same reason as men who work have children – because they want to experience the rewards of parenting and leave a legacy.  There’s a good reason why Fox writes children’s fiction – she clearly lives in La-La Land.  We have situations across our country of children being starved to death, and Fox chooses to hone in on childcare to make her statement on abuse.

And on the weekend, blogger Penelope Trunk listed all the reasons why Sarah Palin shouldn’t be running for VP in America, as a woman with five children including an infant with special needs and a grandchild on the way.  Trunk argues that if she – with the help of a nanny and housekeeper and cleaner – couldn’t manage parenting and a high profile career, then neither will Palin (of course Trunk omitted the fact that after repeated blogging about her husband’s downfalls and character flaws, her marriage failed and she’s now also a single parent which of course brings a range of challenges that are not unique but which do make her situation different to Palin’s).

Look, I’m no expert.  But if all of this is not social pressure against women combining a career, ambition and parenting, then what is?  You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.  I know this and I acknowledge it.  So yes, social pressures do impact my decisions and choices.  I’d be lying if I said otherwise.

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