​A qualitative study of the experiences of working mothers

4 months ago Gemma Bell

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“A qualitative study of the experiences of working mothers in the UK recruitment industry” is research guaranteed to grab the attention of anyone in the sector, parent or otherwise. As a working mother within recruitment myself I was surely going to be amongst the reports’ most engaged readers, eager to see myself reflected in the participant interviews, looking to draw parallels with my own experiences, and I was. That said, whilst the industry held particular interest to me, I found myself thinking that many of the aspects covered by this research are not unique to recruitment. As such I wanted to look at what insight this report could offer to the experiences of working mothers everywhere.

The research itself had been carried out by Katrina Hagan, as part of her Masters degree in Organisational Psychology. We, at Investigo, are fortunate to have Katrina as one of our Business Partners, where she provides professional development coaching across our workforce. Katrina not only has over 10 years' experience within the recruitment sector but is also a trained Business Psychologist giving her an ideal vantage point from which to carry out the research.

When discussing the study with Katrina, the first question I wanted to ask was what had drawn her to this area of research? She explained that whilst the recruitment industry employs over 100,000 staff in the UK there has been limited organisational or workplace wellbeing research undertaken into it. Katrina’s study looked at the “unique psychosocial demands and resources working mothers feel they have experienced during critical periods”. In plain terms, she explains, how did the social factors present within the recruitment industry affect the thoughts and behaviours of working mothers? I was eager to know what ‘social factors’ her study had drawn upon and how these factors could affect the thoughts and behaviours of working mothers and further if they were felt beyond the recruitment industry.

Katrina’s research, along with her experience of working within recruitment herself, drew out two dominant social factors that place unique demands on working mothers:

Demands of the Job

As Katrina states in the introduction to her dissertation the unique set of challenges faced by sales-based professionals is well documented. I and most of my colleagues could testify to the “dynamic and unpredictable environments” the job has to offer. This coupled with a “long hour culture to meet demand” that Katrina references “predisposes individuals to the risk of stress”.

Male Dominated

Recent gender pay-gap disclosures seem to suggest that the recruitment industry remains male dominated. As Katrina states “it is possibly not a coincidence that females typically hit the ‘glass ceiling’... around the time of them choosing to start a family, with the archetypal ‘career building years’ arising at the same time as a woman’s fertility”. She goes on to state “this may also be further compounded by the perceived unspoken demand…to not fulfil traditional female stereotypes and to conceal your mum status in the workplace.”

Whilst this study looked at recruitment, the social factors above are not unique to it. With stress the most common cause for workplace absences, it is clear the effects of constant responsiveness and increased competition have, as such it is not just those within sales-based industries that face such demands. In the same vein many organisations have been called out over their Gender pay gaps, lack of female representation at board level and pervasive bias towards female workers. If these are the socially present factors within not just recruitment but many businesses, how are they effecting the experiences of those returning to work after becoming a mother?

Through the interviews Katrina carried out, the below social factors manifested themselves as three key experiences.

  1. Personal performance demands that working mothers placed upon themselves to be successful in dual roles.

  2. Challenges of returning to work following maternity leave.

  3. Demands to conform to a male gendered organisation’s model of an ‘ideal worker’

Personal performance

Throughout the study Katrina found that the greatest performance demands experienced were the ones the working mothers placed on themselves. Comments repeatedly reference feelings of, “proving themselves” or “doing both jobs badly” as mothers resume their place in the workforce with the increased responsibility and demands of child rearing. The findings are something I can personally attest to having frequently attempted to live up to ever-increasing societal pressure to “have it all”. We all know this is a parental ‘keeping up with the Jones’ that will see you spreading yourself ever more thinly but still we feel we should prove, mostly to ourselves, that we can do it all. I, like all the women interviewed for this study, wanted to resume my place in the workforce, and like them believed that my professional life is important for my wellbeing and fulfilment. This, again is not unique to recruitment, so what can working mothers and their employers do to ask for and find a realistic balance?

Return to Work

This is a special kind of vulnerability that anyone who has been out of work for any length of time will be able to relate to. Alongside the lurking doubts of “will I still be able to do this” you have the changes that any business will naturally have undergone in your absence. Procedural change and staff turnover can often erode self-confidence, as one of the interviewees stated it’s like you’ve slipped “through a void”. Katrina’s research discovered that many of those returning to work after maternity sought less responsible, visible roles as a protection from their self-doubt. At the opposite end of the scale some of those interviewed returned to roles that had been diminished in responsibility and restricted their opportunities for promotion. This cocktail of circumstances often left those returning feeling like they lacked the personal reserves to challenge decisions made to their detriment.

The Ideal Worker

Katrina’s research found that all the women interviewed experienced some form of gendered demand placed upon them on their return to work. They all referenced a pressure to conform to the industry’s model of the ‘ideal worker’, which they felt were the workers with no commitments outside of work and this tended to be a male dominated group, a model present in many organisations. The interviews suggest that these demands were either implied through covert messages surrounding cultural norms “we’re work hard play hard” or were more overt in the interactions with their supervisors and colleagues “Dave is an example to us all that hard work pays off…always first at his desk in the morning and last to leave at night…”.

Many experienced attitudes to flexible working ranging from the jovial “part timer” or “leaving already?” type comments through to an ignorance which saw colleagues disregarding or demanding more flexibility from working mothers around their working patterns. Many interviewed referenced being made to feel of less value due to their part time status, despite the contribution being made during this time being equal to that of their full time colleagues. Some commented further that their “career had been put on hold” as payment for the privilege of part time hours, with the overriding feeling being that full-time workers are preferred.

Another measure against the ideal that working mothers felt they were falling short of was visibility. Alongside many taking part time or compressed hours reducing office ‘face time’, commitments outside of work kept them from the bonding opportunities offered socially. Recruitment, like lots of sales businesses, often further incentivise employees with trips and in/formal events. These are predominantly evening and weekend based and naturally given the responsibilities of parenthood, working mothers cannot attend all those offered. Many of those interviewed commented on feeling ‘excluded’ but also many regretted that these events were often where relationships and bonds are built, and they were missing out on these opportunities.

Whilst this research looked at the recruitment industry the experiences recorded are certainly not exclusive to it. Lots of employees experience stressful working conditions and many organisations are still male dominated. The factors measured against for this report could reasonably be applied more generally for working mothers. Whilst many steps have been taken to increase flexibility and create a work-life balance that allows mothers (parents or primary carers) to remain in the workforce, it seems there is still much work to be done to improve the experience of those returning to work.