“‘When are you planning to go on your maternity leave?’ That was his first question to me!”, Nikita lamented. “I had just announced my pregnancy news, and that is all he asked me. Such an insensitive person!“
Each time we have conducted an insighting or a diagnostics study on gender diversity in an organisation, at least one woman has related an incident similar to this. A discussion with the supervisor, however, reveals the other side of the story.
The new motherhood phase is one of the most challenging phases of a career woman’s life. Much has already been talked about this.
While, of course, it is a joyous event, it also brings with it its own set of concerns and dilemmas for the mother-to-be- effectively balancing career and personal obligations, seamless integration of the responsibility of a new born into her current lifestyle, a job role that enables her to be deeply involved with the upbringing of her child while pursuing her own career aspirations, and many other similar dilemmas.
It is but natural that a woman seeks additional support from all corners, and all the people involved in her life. A supervisor plays a very crucial role in a person’s career, and his or her support during this phase can be life-changing. Sometimes, women give up lucrative careers, post the arrival of the baby, due to the ‘perceived’ lack of support and understanding from their immediate supervisors.
Let us just flip the coin, and hear the version of Nikita’s supervisor, Ramesh.
“I am really happy for her. But our project will be in its most critical stage in the next few months. This will be the same time that she will be proceeding on her leave. She is playing a pivotal role in it, and her presence during that stage will become even more important for us.”
Upon further probing, we recognized that Ramesh had recently been promoted to a Team Lead position, and was under tremendous performance pressure. The project that his team was handling was a critical one in the organisation, and its success would lead to great billing opportunity in the future. And Nikita’s role was important in it.
“Should I hand this project over to someone else, who will be available to see the project through to its completion?”
He was finding himself in a Catch-22 situation. Neither could he hand over the project to another employee, nor could he continue having Nikita work on it.
Ramesh’s dilemma is real. Agreed that Ramesh could have received the news with more enthusiasm. However, in his lack of doing so, labeling him as an insensitive leader would be equally unfair.
An inclusive environment can be effectively built only when differing perspectives are recognized, appreciated and understood. In the above case, Nikita’s expectation, though valid, seems to be one-dimensional. She was very quick to judge Ramesh, and put him the bracket of ‘insensitive male’.
Just as Ramesh is required to display enthusiasm, she should also be required to appreciate his dilemma. The success of this project would have a long term impact on both their careers.
A supervisor has many dilemmas of his / her own upon hearing the news of a team member becoming pregnant:
· How will deadlines be managed in the absence of the team member?
· What will happen to her role while she is on the break?
· Will they find an equally effective replacement, even if it is for a short duration?
· How should work be allocated among the already stretched team?
· How much of the work will the supervisor have to handle in her absence?
· How will they balance performance expectations with care and affection during this sensitive phase?
Some ways in which the organisation can support them through these dilemmas are:
1. Sensitize the supervisor and the expectant female employee on each other’s perspectives and dilemmas
2. Equip the supervisor with knowledge of handling delicate situations; for example, ways in which they can provide support if the female employee falls ill during a team meeting
3. Help the supervisor recognize ways in which they can offer additional support, such as not fixing late evening meetings, which she may find difficult to attend
4. Create open communication channels between employee and supervisor, to ensure that one does not build stereotypical images of the other gender
5. Educate the supervisor on the maternity-related policies the organisation has to offer
An organisation that is keen to build an inclusive culture can ignore neither the dilemmas of the supervisor, nor the concerns of the mother-to-be. A balanced view of both their concerns will help retain talent, especially among women employees, and sustain the inclusive spirit of the organisation.