Family vs Career: The Sacrifice of Talented Women

15 December 2016

Earlier this year, we welcomed a precious baby, who singlehandedly changed the rhythm and focus of our lives. I had a difficult time adjusting to motherhood, and felt the impossibility of functioning as an adult amidst the physical changes and sleep deprivation. Motherhood is a precious gift, but getting used to providing round-the-clock care to someone who is totally dependent is difficult. It made me all the more appreciative of the women before me who have managed the struggle of raising a family and building a career as a professional.

Through my mum's experience of motherhood, I know the hardships of raising a family. Imagine the challenges of raising four children, all under 10 years old, on your own after hiding from a physically violent husband in a women's shelter. I'm not sure that mum's emotional scars have completely healed, even now. Despite the monetary challenges we had growing up, we were never deprived of mum's time and devotion. Reflecting on this, I note how starkly different my life is now: while my partner and I now have financial stability, we lack the same quantity of time to devote to family that Mum had.

I joined APP in 2012 as part of their graduate program, and have since experienced first-hand its commitment to providing women with support and recognition. The human aspect of the company's social and sustainability policies, and the implementation of these, has given me a positive experience of the construction and consulting space. The challenges I have faced in my career have been project-specific and related to the learning curve of technical knowledge, as well as to people management. In my experience, having empathy and actively seeking out time to work through issues, be they technical or personal, have been the cornerstone of project enjoyment and successful delivery.

I feel that the recent merit win of NAWIC's Project Manager Award 2015 was definitive proof of the positive impact of having empathy and integrity. The physical challenges of the project submitted were easily resolved when we approached the issues together, instead of faulting one another. The skills learnt and refined during the project's delivery were numerous: communication, conflict resolution, perseverance and forgiveness (just to name a few). These kinds of skills are all transferrable to all aspects of life and all occupations.

While we were both immersed in work and focusing on career development, my partner and I tried to fit in building a family. My desire to 'project manage' a family was challenged by the actual physical and emotional change that occurred when the real baby arrived. I experienced the naturally skewed focus on providing care, and my career became an elusive object to be tackled in the future; the demand for career development is weak compared to a dependent baby. I wonder how many talented women in our fast-paced and demanding industry face the internal conflict between self­ development and family commitment on a daily basis? In reality, the sacrifices women make are reflected in the number of women represented in management. While 'regulated quotas' is the buzz phrase, the core issue is the difficult choice we have to make between committing time to family or to our career.

I knew that having a baby would change my availability for traditional work, and I was unwilling to rely on external childcare  providers for a young baby. It is a personal decision, and for me it was based mainly on my experiences growing up, accessing the almost unlimited resources of Mum's attention and love. The reality is that without employer support for flexible work arrangements, new mothers are forced to evaluate their priorities and, at times, make a difficult decision between family and career.  Both genders are generally equally represented in talent at the entry levels, but in more senior levels, more men are represented than women. This is an issue that our industry needs to tackle head on. I feel that there is a strong argument for the cumulative impact of lost experience and talent.

I am fortunate to have the support of APP; when I wrapped up my maternity leave, I was able to move into flexible work arrangements. This has allowed me to meet my desire to provide for my family, as well as continue my professional development. My career progression in the organisation has not been hindered by my requirement for flexibility and, in turn, I have gained greater loyalty to APP. I think these are poignant markers of change, and I hope they are echoed throughout our industry.

This article originally appeared in The National Women in Construction's The NAWIC Journal 2016.

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