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Successful working mothers > Stories of Success > Almost Superwoman: A Guilt-Free Working Mother

Almost Superwoman: A Guilt-Free Working Mother

By Galia BarHava-Monteith

I’ve known Alison Andrew since we met at Fonterra during the merger. Alison was the CEO of Fencepost at the time, and over the years we’ve developed a close friendship.

The Funnel Approach to Career – From a Specialist to a Generalist

Alison trained as an engineer but quickly became a generalist in her business career. She has undertaken many diverse corporate roles both in line management and staff functions. She has also worked in many industries and in companies ranging in size from small start-ups to large corporates. She has clearly enjoyed the variety of roles and industries she’s worked in, but she does sound a word of caution,

“There is a danger that as a generalist you’ll be really good at nothing in particular. You can become too generalist.”

Alison’s emphatic career advice to those who are thinking of undertaking a wide business career is to train as a specialist. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to generalise later in your career if that’s what you want. She sees her own training as fundamental in teaching her a methodological approach and clear thinking skills which she believes set her up very well for her wide ranging and diverse career since.

Life, Not Work, Is Her Greatest Achievement

Alison has two sons and she rates them, plus her marriage and her family, as her greatest achievements.

“My greatest achievement? Being able to have a functioning career, a family and a good marriage and stay sane!”

So, how does she make the whole life and career combination work?

“Of course you compromise,” says Alison. “Just like in business, you ration to get the best return on your investment, and that’s what I do in my life.”

Over the years, I’ve come to realise how disciplined Alison is. You’ll never find her loitering around the company kitchen having chats.

“I measure myself on output, not input and I walk out of the office when I’m done. I don’t believe you have to be seen at your desk to prove you’re working hard.”

Now, those of you who might be slightly faint-hearted, take a big breath before you read on (I definitely needed to!). It has to be said that behind every successful working mother there’s a great support infrastructure. Alison is no exception.

“To make it work, you’ve got to have good child care and outsource the administration aspects of running your house.”

She and her husband have a governess who picks the kids up from school and does their homework with them. She also helps out with occasional shopping and washing. They also have someone who does 8 hours of housework including cleaning and ironing.

Alison is one of the most energetic people I know. She’s religious about getting enough sleep; she declines networking and work socialisation 99% of time. She does, however, go to the gym every day at 5.45 am. Her kids have their morning jobs to do while she trains and if they get them all done on time, including making their own lunches and stacking the dishwasher, they get to watch TV.

After dropping the kids at school at around 7.45am on the way to work, she checks her phone and has her first cup of tea from the thermos – while stalled in traffic.

She returns home at about 6.30pm and makes a simple dinner with her boys. The whole family eats together at about 7.30pm. Her younger son still likes to be read to, so she tries to do that most nights.

The weekends are dedicated to the family. On Saturday the jobs get done and the boys have their sporting activities. Sundays are the family day. The family sails together or ventures to the west coast beaches where the boys practise their surfing. Her focus is very much on balancing those two key aspects of her life: work and family.

“Our social life is getting better with the boys getting older.”

Don’t Be Afraid to be Human – No One’s Perfect

Early on in her career, while she was struggling with adjusting to managing a career with children, Alison had a boss who told her to embrace her humanity.

“He said to me, and it’s stayed with me, that no one wants to follow god. As a leader, you’ve got to demonstrate you’re human, that you have failures and that you’re vulnerable.”

Be Clear About What’s Important To You!

Alison believes it is totally achievable to be a working mother in New Zealand. She sees the challenge for women coming from their level of choice:

“Women now have too many choices; they can be working mums, working women without children, part time working or not working at all. What women need to do is make a choice. Figure out what’s right for you and go for it!”

She says the key is not feeling guilty about the choice.

“There is no right answer! If you want to work, then work, and enjoy it. Don’t sit at your desk feeling guilty that you’re not at home with your child. And if you want to stay home with your child, do that instead.”

Women’s Responses to Male-Dominated Corporate Political Structures

I asked Alison why she thinks there are so few senior women in New Zealand business. She believes that the oft-mentioned high profile corporate women in New Zealand are a superficial phenomenon, “a thin veil” at best. “In business, I think there are still a lot of male-dominated environments.” She points to the underlying structures of corporate life as the place to look for dominant male norms.

“You look at the food provided in lunch meetings. What woman would choose sausage rolls and custard squares?” she asks. “And the language is very masculine with male nouns being used almost exclusively.”

Alison described the environment in many large local corporates as insidiously sexist. “It’s not overt, but just under the surface there are these aggressive environments which can capture you.” It’s a challenge to remain feminine and not to ‘become a man’ by buying in to the politics, the dress sense and the mannerisms. In Alison’s view, the reason why there aren’t many women in top jobs is three fold:

Firstly, she believes a lot of women can’t be bothered with these male-dominated environments. Women will opt for something or someplace else, that’s less aggressive and more fulfilling.

“Women have more options than men and we don’t feel we have to put up with it like they do. Many men are trapped, and they have no choice but to make it work. That’s why they’re so much less likely to rock the corporate boat. Women don’t have the same unhealthy dependency on their jobs.”

A second factor she sees limiting the number of women at the top is that it’s more risky for senior managers to promote women into high positions because they are so visible.

“If a man fails, no one really notices. But if a senior woman fails, everyone notices and for the CEO or senior manager who promoted her there that’s a real issue.”

The third barrier is affordable and flexible child care.

“Your children’s safety is paramount. If you’re worried about them there’s no way you can achieve to your best.”

Very early on as a working mother, Alison and her husband moved from centre based childcare to a nanny arrangement. “I knew I needed to work. Working makes me happy. We budgeted for the more expensive care.”

Alison’s Advice For Other Women:

  1. Don’t compromise on having children because of your career. They are the best thing that can happen to you!
  2. Pick a life partner who’s a good friend, someone who believes in you and will do half the work.
  3. Don’t feel guilty with your choices. Whatever you choose is right. Listen to advice but don’t take it all in, go with your instinct.
  4. Look after yourself and feel good in yourself. Nurture yourself so you can give something to others. If you don’t, you’ll burn out.
  5. Don’t worry what other people think of you.
  6. Work hard and do your best to make every moment count.

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