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Working Mothers at the Top

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

This article is based on interviews with Women Partners from accounting firm BDO Spicers by Alice Taylor.

The old working mother conundrums: family and then career, or vice versa? Or both together? How to make part-time work career-enhancing rather than a dead end? The list goes on.

Professional service firms can be demanding workplaces. However, as you’ll see, at BDO Spicers the women have all achieved Partnership without becoming ‘one of the boys’ or giving away dreams of having children.

Brief Background

BDO Spicers is a New Zealand owned and operated network of twelve Independent Member Chartered Accounting and Advisory Firms with sixty seven Partners and over 650 staff in total.

At the time of writing this article, BDO Spicers has eight women Partners, six of whom are mothers. Women thus make up 12% of the Partnership, just a shade under the norms of around 15% that we typically see in New Zealand’s senior management teams and professional service firms.

The working mother Partners have children of all ages. Judith Stanway, in Rotorua, who is Chair of BDO Spicers overall, is now a grandmother of seven aswell as mother to four daughters. At the other end of the “mum” scale are Partners whose children are toddlers. Despite these differences, common themes emerged around support, timing and commitment.

Superwoman Doesn’t Work Here

All the mothers were asked whether they received, or sought out, support. The answer was clear: help was a vital part of the equation. This strongly echoes Galia’s observations in her recent article on the traits that successful working mothers share.

A senior Partner summed up the theme that drawing on help is critical for working mums and something they should feel comfortable doing.

I learnt very early on that you can’t be Superwoman and so got someone in to help with the housework. And with your family you’re not Superwoman, so don’t sweat the small stuff! Take care of yourself.

After all, it’s a marathon effort that’s called for, not a sprint for glory!

Help at Home

The attitudes of the “Other Halfs” were crucial. These men all respect their wives’ and life partners’ career ambitions in principle…

I’m very privileged in having a supportive husband. There has never been any question between us about me working. We were a team and my aspirations were as important as his. It was probably quite unusual for the time.

… and also in practice:

With our first child my husband who has a plumbing business took 4 months off full time, then worked three days and took two off. He has always been happy with it. It makes sense for me to work full time financially. I’m very appreciative that not all guys would do this.

Not everyone has a husband who can take on a significant share of childcare, though. One Partner’s husband works six days a week. The key is that his support of her ambition translates through to investing in extra help at home:

He has always wanted me to get ahead in my career. So we have help at home and I know he would be there if I needed him.

On this topic, at Professionelle we think that all professional women, not just the mums, should at least consider hiring some help at home. It can be hard to spend precious leisure time in chores rather than in activities that refresh you. Of course, the choice is the individual’s – we know one or two people who love ironing!

Support at Work

The attitudes a working mother confronts in the office are another significant element in her being able to “make it work”. Having to hide the realities of one’s home life is draining. One senior Partner acknowledged that this is an area in which she has seen real improvements during her career:

“I made an extra effort to ensure family circumstances didn’t interfere with work. Things are quite different now. I had to be a lot stronger then…”

Other Partners with children report that they have always received real co-operation from colleagues. This affirms their choices to become mothers alongside their other roles:

I had three months off after having children and the others picked up the extra workload. They all have families so they are very family-oriented. In particular, our Managing Partner is passionate that you can have both a Partnership role and a family!

Supportive attitudes at work typically translate into practical actions. Whether that’s rallying in support when a mother is home with sick children, or formalising flexible work arrangements, these responses are where firms that mean it truly show it.

While the children were young, they supported me by allowing me to work what hours I could. Working these flexible hours was the key. When my first son was born I chose to stay at home for two years and at that stage I had a female boss who let me work from home.

Note that the women Partners without children also appreciate flexible hours to help them “fit everything in”. Very likely the men at BDO Spicers appreciate it, too! We often hear that a universal offer of flexible arrangements is vital to uptake.

Clients… This is the other key constituency that must be satisfied if a professional working woman is to succeed and rise to the most senior levels. The mothers in the Partnership reported no difficulties here, though some found it “nerve-wracking” announcing their family plans to clients. The modern reality is that flexible work arrangements combined with new technology can increase a firm’s availability to a client.

Career Development and Families

When to have your first baby? These things can’t always be planned, but it’s a perennial question for all professional working women. Should you strive for Partnership or similar seniority first, to reach a “safe level” in the game? Or do you juggle the rising career path and young family all at once? The answer at BDO Spicers is weighted towards the first, perhaps inspired by a senior Partner’s views: “Don’t worry about it. Just become a Partner and then sort out the family.”

Four of the six Partners did indeed make deliberate plans around promotion and babies but life has a way of intervening! One found biology almost swamping her careful plans:

“I was always very career-focused and I chose to be a Partner first as that was a key ambition. So I was offered the Partnership and then I fell pregnant! I was petrified about raising it. I really did think this is the Partnership gone! But they were completely supportive and so were my clients.”

Another discovered, as so many women do, that babies change things, not least their mothers, in unanticipated ways:

I always knew I wanted to have both [career and family]: I thought I would just get a nanny and all would be sorted! But then when I actually had children I found I wanted to spend more time with them. It became obvious to me that this is why we have children.

(This Partner currently works 3 days per week).

A third really wrestled with the implications of putting career first:

Two and a half years after becoming Partner I had my first child. The decision to become a Partner first was difficult. I knew if I had a child I’d have to keep working full time. It was a hard decision but that’s what I’m doing.

The last two working mums did things another, and arguably harder, way. Children came along after they had started working yet before they had finished studying. Surely, if these women were looking for an alternative career they could find it as top notch jugglers – or, better, liontamers, reflecting the courage and determination needed to handle three major endeavours at once!

I had my first two children when I was still studying for my Master in Economics and BBS, then had another two before I qualified. So I was studying, working and raising a family all at once. I was doing all three for at least twelve years…my life did revolve entirely around work and family.

Guilt: Part of the Package

I bet the mums reading this are nodding a little ruefully. We’ve all felt it, and these Partners are no different. One feels she missed out on being with her girls when they were very little because she returned to work when they were 6 weeks old. “But now I do take time off to do special things with my daughters such as going skiing.” Another, who acknowledges she sometimes puts work ahead of family, adds,

If the dishes aren’t done straight after dinner, just walk past them. You have to. Reading books to your children is much more important.”

The pattern seems to be that while they do prioritise their careers, these women also try to focus their non-work time squarely on their children.

Career Focus

One element that comes through is that all the women Partners, both mothers and non-mothers, place a high value on their careers. It guides the tradeoffs they make, and the way they direct their energies. The certainty for the mothers that they have made the right trade-off for them comes, it seems, from their self knowledge. For example, the partner who struggled with the decision to go for Partnership first, said, “I knew I’d go stark raving mad if I gave up my career for motherhood and had to stay home all day!”

Research, you may be relieved to know, backs up the wisdom of choosing to work if it’s what makes you happy. Studies show that one of the key determinants of a child’s happiness is its mother’s happiness.

What it comes to is this: to persevere right to the top of the career track you have to be comfortable with your choices. That means dealing with the guilt and knowing that prioritising work is what is right for you. You will never stop others passing judgement, of course. Instead, reflect on the wise words of two of the BDO Spicers’ Partners:

“Be yourself; be your own person. Don’t feel guilty about doing what you need to do.Become confident and comfortable with your own decision and don’t listen to the critics! And get a great support network: I couldn’t do this on my own.”

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