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The family juggling act - how to get it right

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Juggling family and business life can be a real challenge for many women and families running a business or for anyone trying to climb the corporate ladder, while pulling off the double play of being a great parent.

Kirsten Lees, author of the book, Let Go of My Leg, has used her 20 years experience of successfully juggling a business career with a busy family life, to give a unique, no-nonsense look at the transition from the kitchen back into the office, from a practical perspective.

Lees spent 20 years in business, from starting her own dotcom business to publishing and later media management. She has a good handle on maternity leave thanks to her growing family.

“It feels like I am constantly on maternity leave but I’m just coming up to my third child now, and I have worked in-between,” she explains.

Her book will resonate with many modern, working women in particular.

“It occurred to me that I’m a very typical women of the early 21st century,” she observes. “I had my children late, I invested a lot in my career — it meant a lot to me, from my school days when I was studying through university — it’s just what you do. There’s nothing unusual about being a working woman these days.

“We’re all leaving our babies a bit later and when we have them, we have our HECS debts, we’ve got a looming superannuation shortfall that they keep worrying us about.”

And then along come children.

“We love our children as much as we ever did, and of course you want to spend whatever time you can practically with them,” she admits. “But should that mean the mummy track? This is the clichéd kind of corner of the office for the part-timers and the job sharers.”

Lees thinks there is a negative attitude to these women and as one woman commented: “They’ve got that look in their eyes, you know, the dimmed light.”

This attitude is counterproductive and at odds with the new ways of working, the new economic imperative of keeping women in the workforce and keeping everyone in the workforce as long as possible with Australia’s shrinking number of workers and skills shortage.  

Lees believes we have to take the time out that we need and want to invest in our families, but also retain a sense of ourselves as economically — not just in a sense, but practically — active business people contributing as we always have done?

So is the title Let Go of My Leg, a reference to children hanging onto a working mum’s leg or is it directed at the people who put working mothers in the mummy-track class? The author thinks both.
“Anybody who has children understands that up until they are 18 you hear: ‘Mummy, why aren’t you spending more time with us?’”

Lees says, “I haven’t got that far yet myself, but I know women who’ve had children who will build walls of toys in the corridor to stop them getting out to work. It’s just that look in their eyes which we ingest. All our motherly guilt and our worries about the society we’re creating as parents.

“But the guilt trip doesn’t just come from the home. It’s also when a woman goes back to the workforce, and there are other walls — perceptions and hangovers from older days when we did need to be at work for a certain number of hours in a certain place in order to achieve the kind of productivity that was required.”

Lees thinks the new workplace should open opportunities for working mums.

As a nation of knowledge workers predominantly in the service industries, such as finance and hospitality — a lot of today’s industries are based on what we know, not when we know it or when we do it. So there must be scope for change.

“There is a need that women and parents increasingly have for flexibility and at the same time there’s a need that the workforce has for flexible workers,” she points out. “So my book is about how do you get both needs together and how do you reinterpret your requirements and persuade your workplace that you can continue contributing in a valid way.”

The book addresses women who have taken out maybe three years or even eight years out of the workforce — and they’ve got to relearn how to get back on the horse. How do you use online job search databases? Has that changed anything? Networking — is that the golf course or has that changed too? How do you get your confidence back? What practical things do you need to do to get back to work?

The book also looks at women who are wanting their old job back or are planning to go on maternity leave. These women need to know how to put a business case for their particular job to their individual manager to effectively persuade them of the flexibility that they need to accommodate their new commitments as a parent can work for the business as well. Lees says there is a lot to make decisions about in this area of business.

“There’s so many clichés and new words out there. There’s job sharing, telecommuting, time-only contracts and many more. And there are all sorts of options.”

The book looks at who is doing them and who has been taken seriously when they come up with them? It also evaluates whether these options are working for business and are they working for individuals?

There are also templates and examples from workplace experts, recruitment agencies and big employers. Lees also spoke to about 60 women who’ve done this over a number of years and it’s their wisdom.

“You know, it’s always the people who’ve given it a go, found out part of the answer, found out the bit that works and are still working on other areas,” she says. “It’s their wisdom that makes the book really meaningful and really practical.”

Lees thinks some of the remaining problems for women in business are hangovers from when men ran business, but she thinks it is changing for the better.

“I think, when we stop thinking of it as a men’s issue and a women’s issue, that’s when society will understand that the solutions are for all of us,” she says. “And I think, as men are being required by their partners and also more interested in parenting, they’re asking for the same things as women, so, that’s helping making it less a whinging women issue and therefore helping towards a solution.”

Anyone trying to pull of the double play of being both a great worker (either running a business or being an employee) and parent would find Let Go of My Leg a very useful read.

Work on your business, not in it. To learn how, book a complimentary business assessment today with a Switzer Business Coach.

Important information:This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

Published on: Friday, October 02, 2009

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