When my first son was 10 months old I went to see my boss to discuss my options for returning to work. I never once believed that my request to work part time would be turned down. And that’s not because I’m arrogant but because the organisation I work for is a forward-thinking institution with family-friendly policies. Added to which, other women in my department who had been on maternity leave had always returned to their old positions, worked part time or in job shares, their grade and salary and career path in tact.
So when my boss told me that this was not case for me I was totally unprepared.
I suggested a job share, but apparently, my job required ‘continuity and consistency’, I offered to make sure my hours were spread out across the week, but my offer was rejected. I wondered if my boss didn’t like me, if she was unhappy with my performance, but I had always had glowing PDRs, my direct reports and I had great rapport and respect for each other. And I got on really well with colleagues from other departments.
I was incredulous. And devastated. And I couldn’t believe the hypocrisy of it. The two women who made this decision, my boss, worked compacted hours (5 days in 4) and Director, worked part time hours which were always changing. These two women had successful careers at our organisation partly thanks to the fact that they had both benefitted from the flexible working policies. (Let’s not even mention the fact that the stream of work which made my job unsuitable for being part time, became redundant not long after this).
I could have appealed their decision. But I was scared. If I lost, I would be out of a job. And what would happen if I won the appeal, would my working environment become toxic? And I was weak and I was desperate. Because although I knew that I loved my son, I had realised quite early on in motherhood that I was not cut out to be a stay at home mum. I have unending amounts of admiration for those who can do it, but me? I just about managed a year of it. In order for me to function happily and healthily I needed something else for my mind to be working on, and I needed the company and conversation of other adults. And because of this need, and the fear that I might not have a job to go to, I didn’t fight for my rights, I didn’t fight for myself.
Instead I let them demote me.
And that decision has had such a negative impact on me.
Ok, so those of you who work in HR or employment law, or have had to ‘pick up the slack’ when a woman has gone on maternity leave will say that it was my manager’s right to make that decision. That I shouldn’t have my cake and eat it too. That I’m lucky to have a job. But I took a big cut in my pay, and most damaging of all, I took a huge cut in my already low self-esteem. Something that, six years later, I still haven’t recovered from.
So why am I bringing this up all these years later? Why am I moaning about something I didn’t have the guts to change? Well, it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about so many things, about sisterhood and about fairness and about people being created equal. These glittering ideals that I’d always felt so strongly about, had faith in. I’ve never been one for organised religion, when people ask I say I’m more spiritual, my faith lies in people, in humanity. But right now, my faith is wavering, it’s being slowly picked at with the tiniest needles. The marks may not be visible to the naked eye, but the effect is cumulative and creates a tsunami of doubt in my mind.
It’s a hard lesson to learn but I’m only now seeing that when it comes to your professional life, you can only rely on yourself. No one else is going to push you to achieve lofty ambitions, no one will hand you a promotion on a plate, and no one will stick up for you when things don’t quite go your way. You have to be your own superhero. You have to be confident and tell people about your great work, and you have to fight for promotions. When I finally find my cape and my self-esteem, I guess just need to keep reminding myself of this.