Hacking employers’ perception of parental leave

Recently I stumbled upon this post. It is a wonderful rendition of a feeling I have been having since my pregnancy started to show. Suddenly, I had lost my identity and I had become an expectant mum: she had replaced my personality, my job, my interests, the accomplishments as much as the weaknesses which shaped others’ perception of me. All started to revolve around: “Boy or girl?”; “Oh my God, I am sure you can’t wait!”; “Have you bought everything you need?”…

I was an expectant mum, much like any other.

Before pregnancy, someone had asked me to think about how we can “hack maternity leave”. Whilst I praise the intent, only as a mother did I later resolve the conflicting feeling this question had raised in me: how is a mother a singular, universal identity, the mass-market object of a maternity “hackaton”? What does it mean to hack, crack, solve for maternity leave, when each parent has an incredibly rich and distinct experience of theirs? Surely, there can be a method to hack parental leave. Most probably an exercise of listening, empathy, mutual respect and accountability. But what good looks like in the planning for, the exercise and the return from maternity leave is likely to be quite different in each case. The maternity period is a lot about personal change, and growth.

Choosing to see parental leave as a benefit of staff and not an investment in their growth, employers miss out on the opportunity of re-integrating their employees meaningfully into the workplace, helping them reflect on any of the new skills and the mindset acquired and how to employ these in their jobs.

(Not that the learning itself seizes once the leave period ends).

When was the last time that a hiring manager asked you in your interview: “What has parenthood taught you that defines the way you work today?” When did you last feel comfortable to bring an example from your parenthood experience in your answer to a standard competency question? Now, that would be an interesting workplace “hack”.

In his book How children succeed, Paul Tough describes how years of social experiments helped researchers boil success down to the following inherent or learned character traits: grit, zest, social intelligence, self-control, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. I had bought the book to prepare myself in my new role as a mum. But in reading the book I discovered what those qualities meant for me personally and now motherhood is strengthening my commitment to the uncomfortable and my quest for more learning experiences that can help me master those traits. Although people only see the results, success is a learned mindset.

Close to nothing is discussed in public or by employers about the type of character traits for high performance that being a parent instils in you. It’s a huge miss. This article is an impeccable account of the relentless test to one’s character that parenthood is – better than I could ever put it myself.  Yet, even in the present times of #MeToo, Diversity&Inclusion, etc, the topic of transferability of parent skills to the workplace is mostly the subject of comedy (although this fake interview process for a Director of Operations role is a must watch).

Employers fail to acknowledge how maternity leave actually feels for their employees (or investors for their investees) and what it means for them as a whole-person. I was resolved to approach my maternity leave slightly differently: as Gaia. That means a mum, of course. But also my wider self, with my non-child related interests, needs, passions and crises that I could explore and work on through this learning experience.

So, for a change, I dare us to flip the “maternity discussion” on its head and speak not to the maternity (or paternity) rights that employers must endorse. But instead, to make room for sharing and reflecting on our individual experiences of parenthood in relation to how we work – with no stigma and with no stereotypes attached to it, making for an authentic demonstration of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Personally, my maternity period has been an extraordinary learning experience. With time, I am learning the practice of managing myself through the changes that life brings, instead of striving to always control the changes around me. I am developing a more accepting attitude towards failure: test and learn become second nature with a child. And as I learn to learn from my failures, I find I can bounce back quicker and stronger from them (it’s called bouncebackability and it’s a word). This makes me a better leader, a humble leader (one that my industry, Financial Services, is in dire need of and a key ingredient to long term resilience).

As the workplace and work arrangements change to make space for the automation of increasingly sophisticated tasks, employers can choose to see their staff as just less efficient machines or they can capitalise on the distinctly human experiences and skills that make us unique. Becoming a parent is the biggest change to one’s life, it comes overnight, it is a shock to who you are and it re-orients what it’s worth getting out of bed for. The experience can be one of tremendous growth, one that can unlock the mindset and the character change for success. So how can we help employers recognise this and capitalise on this?

Gaia Ines Fassò

Gaia Ines Fassò

Head of the Anthemis Institute
Anthemis Group

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