Women, workplace tensions, and working together

There is a battle-line which has been scratched into the sand over the last few decades.  I imagine it’s one that started off as faintly drawn, but over time it has become quietly entrenched. It’s a line which women don’t want to acknowledge. It is one we wish wasn’t there, it causes us tension and comes between us. It divides us, which weakens us. It is the line between working women who have children and working women who don’t.

Reading this article in the Telegraph made me think about my own experiences on both sides of the line. The story cited a survey by women’s magazine Red, which found that four in 10 working women without children believed they worked harder than their colleagues who were mothers. Women’s editor, Emma Barnnett, also told us more about the work-place divide according to those surveyed, which included 42 per cent of those who were not mothers feeling angry that their colleagues’ holiday requests took priority over their own. Doing things like leaving the office to tend to children was another bugbear.

While only four per cent of working mothers think their colleagues object to this behaviour, the reality is 41 per cent of their non-parent colleagues think it’s unfair that they have been left to pick up the slack.

I’ve been on both sides. Before having my son, I worked in a newsroom where there were admittedly few mothers who remained in the job soon after giving birth. We worked long hours – leaving to pick up children from nursery around the time of a daily print deadline or breaking story wasn’t an option. But there were parents in the workplace. I can’t remember ever feeling annoyed about them getting school holidays off – I never wanted to holiday at peak season – and I can’t remember feeling that they worked lesser hours. If anything, they appeared to work particularly hard to get everything done in the hours they were paid for – because staying late at the office just because you slacked off a bit in the day by spending too much time on Twitter and coffee with contacts wasn’t an option.

Then I became a mother and when my child was four months old, I went back to the newsroom. I was only there two days a week, but my perspective shifted dramatically. I found myself working harder so I could get out after twelve hours instead of thirteen. I found myself pushing my colleagues harder, because I was reliant on a chain of reporters and if they were running late with their stories, it made me late and I’d miss bedtime again.

I found work harder. Not because I was sleep deprived, but because it wasn’t my sole focus anymore. Yes, I still wanted us to get out the best front page on the rack the next day, but I also worried about how much my baby fed and slept in my absence – and those worries occupied my mind and had to be pushed to one side so I could concentrate. Did I want to push worries about my baby’s feeding to one side? Of course not.

Maybe I was naive in my thoughts of those around me who weren’t mothers, but I never imagined they resented me for slacking off. Perhaps it was the very peculiar working environment that a newsroom is that simply doesn’t allow for slacking. Perhaps it was because there wasn’t any slacking off, or any perception of slacking off.

Whether or not mums with kids do get more leeway or not in the workplace isn’t what’s interesting for me, though, about the survey. What’s interesting is the perception that they do, and the resentment it apparently causes.

Working women, whether they are mothers or not, already face too many battles in the workplace to be pitted against each other. How helpful is a survey about whether or not they are secretly annoyed with each other? In my view, it’s divisive and entrenching that battle line that really we should be trying to erase.

I have written before about the need for more flexibility in the workplace. However, maybe this needs to be extended not just to parents, but widely to all workers. Many of our workplaces are backdated given the options technology now gives us. Yet without equal conditions, it is possibly inevitable that divisions will arise. Of course every workplace is different – my own wouldn’t have been able to accommodate the kind of flexibility I dream of – but treating staff fairly and equally shouldn’t be an area where compromises are made.

Even more importantly, there needs to be a mutual understanding of the pressures on parents who work and the very difficult juggling act they carry out every hour of every day. Parents are not asking for an easy ride when they go to work. Often they don’t have a choice. Often they are consumed by guilt at leaving their children. Often they are bloody exhausted from a broken night’s sleep, the demands of a baby and other child, running a household and bringing in an income. They don’t need special treatment, but humanity and kindness surely isn’t too much to ask.

Parents, and I believe mothers in particular,  who return to work are often making huge sacrifices. They will tell you they have two full time jobs. They do – and that’s just half of the picture.

Instead of finding more ways in which to pitch a group of women against another group, let’s stop with the divisive surveys and commentary. Let’s acknowledge that people’s lives are different, their needs are different, but they should all be treated fairly at work and with understanding. And then, as women, let’s help each other to get ahead, to overcome inequality and to be doing the jobs we want to do.

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