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Changing mindsets 'To my shame, I suggested his wife collect his child from crèche'

Michelle O’Keeffe of Platform55 says attitudes to working conditions and family life are changing, but that things need to move faster.

I HAVE NEVER been one to shy away from sharing my early career accomplishments. With a background in digital marketing, an understanding of commercials, data analytics and an entrepreneurial mindset, this combination of skills led me to manage a team at a young age.

I managed both men and women who were older than me. I was career focused, carefree and hadn’t even thought of starting a family yet.

One day a man from my team came to me and said, “I’ve just got a call from the crèche, Lucy’s temperature is 39 degrees. I am going to have to go and get her.”

I am not proud of what happened next, but I suggested that his wife pick up the child. Reflecting on it now, I cringe at my lack of empathy and understanding.

That happened 14 years ago when paternity leave was two days, fertility was talked quietly about behind closed doors, mums were the ones who got the phone calls from crèche and menopause was a taboo topic, particularly in the workplace. I had no lived experience of being a parent. I saw parenting-related issues as disruptions in the workplace. However, I would joke so much more easily about someone not making it into the office on a Friday morning after being out with clients the night before.

Learning the lessons

Becoming a parent was a huge turning point, and my view on working parents changed drastically. I saw how the cards were stacked against me to succeed in my career as a female with family responsibilities. But worst of all, I knew that the young and hungry professionals coming up the ranks now saw me as the irritant with my childcare-related calls. This is when I realised something had to change.

In our workplaces, we have a legal and compliant commitment to driving gender equality, being inclusive and ensuring we have policies in place to support employees through all life stages including, gasp, menopause and fertility. But the reality is, there are leaders in organisations who have no lived experience of the policies they are implementing. Leaders who are managing parents but are not parents themselves. Leaders supporting employees through major life events such as maternity, paternity, miscarriage, IVF and menopause alongside having to deliver business KPI’s and objectives.

HR departments and organisations work hard to ensure the best policies are in place, but it’s crucial that managers support the people behind the policies. Through my work, we have asked managers if they are equipped to handle sensitive conversations about family topics that impact the workplace. Shockingly, eight out of 10 managers say they are not.

A workforce for all

How we live and parent has changed. The family dynamic has changed and means different things to different people. From parents to step-parents to caring for elderly parents to same-sex couples on a surrogacy journey, the definition of family varies.

We can’t expect our leaders to have lived experience of every policy and nor do we hope they do. But they do have to support employees every day. That’s the job, alongside the day job and delivering on the organisation’s own KPI’s.

I spoke to an executive last week who on her return from maternity leave got ‘the call’ from the crèche. She told me, “I was told by a manager in my workplace that I had to let her know if my baby was going to be sick again. What a ridiculous thing to say, so with that I resigned.”

This is a perfect example of attrition. A talented female leaves your organisation, not because of the policies or lack thereof, not because of salary, but because of a comment from their leader with no lived experience or training of the situation they are managing.

The cost of losing a female post family leave, costs your organisation 240% of their annual salary. This attrition is the reason we do not have an equal gender split at senior levels. 80% of the gender pay gap is attributed to the motherhood penalty.

It is an organisation’s responsibility to ensure that leaders can lead with empathy and understand what lived experience looks like in relation to the policies they are implementing. At a minimum, they need to be able to support employees through maternity and paternity leave and re-onboard correctly to avoid attrition. Investment must be made in these areas, otherwise, you will lose talented staff.

Maternity and paternity leave, gender pay gap and equality may seem like old news, but these topics impact over 55% of the workforce who are parents. If the Irish workforce is to continue to thrive, those employees need support, as do their employers. 

Michelle O’Keeffe is the Co-Founder of Platform55.

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Michelle O’Keeffe
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