I know it’s a terrible expression, but I do think it does sum up a phenomenon that many women experience at work when they announce they are pregnant. It’s a feeling that you have somehow slipped from the fast track to the mummy-track with your announcement.
I’ve coached women who have held off announcing they’re engaged till after a promotion or bonus round in case it prejudices their chances of a fair hearing. While outright sexism is not something that many of you are going to encounter in today’s day and age, you might well experience some well-intentioned managers who see you in a different light. Here are some tips to avoid being “mummy-tracked”.
Sharing Your News
Announcing you’re expecting a child at work can trigger a range of emotions. Telling your friends and colleagues is one thing but telling your manager can feel daunting and cause anxiety. Of course, this entirely depends on how well you know and get on with your manager. If it’s a relatively new relationship, and nowadays this might well be the case as organisations change more often, then it can feel like you’re suddenly forced into having a very personal conversation. Perhaps up until now you’ve had a more transactional, business focused relationship and not yet built the trust to be sure how your news will be received. You might worry that your manager might just see it as a spanner in the works, be purely focused on the possible disruption to the team rather than on you. You might worry that they change their attitude towards you, no longer seeing you in the same light as before. In other words, you might worry that you’ll be “mummy-tracked”.
So, What Can You Do About It?
The first thing to bear in mind is that human beings have a habit of mirroring each other’s feelings. You might be determined to put across a ‘business as usual’ message and to hide your misgivings. I’ve coached relatively inexperienced managers who have told me that they feel constrained in conversations such as these and find themselves being led by their direct report. They worry about saying the wrong thing. If you want to keep it to a “strictly business” dialogue, then they worry about straying into the personal. However, this is a very personal issue and I believe it’s best to be as candid as you can. Make sure what you convey is a true reflection of how you are feeling about your news and bear in mind that you are ‘leading’ the discussion. It’s especially important to help set the tone of how you want to be treated.
Lean into Feelings of Vulnerability
Be as authentic as you can be about the cocktail of emotions you’re experiencing. If you are plain delighted, then share that joy! Mostly, you’ll find your manager is thrilled for you and will offer congratulations, even if inside they’re panicking about how they’re going to manage without you. However, if you are feeling vulnerable you may be reluctant to share that so readily. But I would urge you to take the risk and show how you’re really feeling. Expressing your concern about being mummy-tracked makes it much harder for that to happen. Once you’ve engaged your manager’s empathy, they will be much more vigilant on your behalf. Check out Brene Brown’s great Ted Talk on the Power of Vulnerability to learn more.
It’s also a good idea to introduce your worry about being mummy-tracked up front before it starts to happen, as it plants the seed in your manager’s mind and will make them more conscious of that being a trap they might accidentally fall into.
Communicate That You’re Still Invested in Your Career
It’s only natural that you may feel nervous about the impact a baby is going to have on your career. Up until now, you have probably been able to work as many hours as needed to get the job done. But now you’re suddenly facing the prospect of a much less elastic day. Many of the women I coach have real concerns about how they’re going to make it work. Some worry about whether their motivation for their career will dissolve. Maybe they’ll want to just be with the baby all the time? Others confide not feeling very maternal and don’t foresee any change at all. Before having a baby, everyone responds differently. The reality is most people do manage to combine being a parent with having a career and do make it work. Indeed, nowadays very few people have the luxury to not work, and the rise of the dual career couple is well documented – as is the number of single women who are sole breadwinner and caregiver. So, while you’re still at work, make sure you are still having career conversations with your manager and any sponsors or mentors with whom you have developed relationships. Don’t go off grid. Get involved in your cover arrangements, ideally choosing who it might be. Don’t leave it to your manager to decide what happens to your work in your absence.
What Impact Does Part-time Working Have on My Career?
Nearly a half of the women I coach return to work on a 4-day week. That seems to be the ‘go to’ request for flexible working. Yet, there are many ways to return on a more flexible basis that don’t lead to an automatic 20% reduction in pay. For example, it can be a clever idea to phase back in on a reduced week basis as this can give you a chance to see if you can manage the workload whilst still managing a less elastic day. Do check out Gemma’s article on the different ways you can work flexibly before you make up your mind.
I think it’s particularly important to have a no holds barred conversation with your partner about how you intend to share childcare and whether one career is being prioritised over another before committing to work part-time on a permanent basis. I would recommend you use our couples quiz just to make sure you don’t sleepwalk into being the primary carer just because you’re female. How you share care and work is critical in how you succeed not just at work but at home as a couple too.
If you’re a sole parent, then similar conversations need to be had with your support network. Your success both as a parent and an employee is predicated on the strength of your network, whether it’s a partner, parents or friends, you need to have candid conversations ahead of having the baby.
The reason I recommend a thorough examination of your options when thinking about working part-time is that despite the mass of research out there pointing to the productivity gains for people working more flexibly there is still evidence that returning to work on a reduced hours basis can contribute to your being mummy-tracked. Of course, this is much more apparent in more traditional industries and much less so in smaller start–ups where flexible working is just the default position for all. However, appraisal ratings do show a bias towards lower ratings for people who work part-time particularly when they formerly worked full-time. Ironically, you can expect better ratings from a new manager because you can re-set the contract. So, if you do decide that you’re going to work part-time it’s imperative that you manage expectations. You don’t want to be doing a 5-day job in 4 days.
Whatever you choose to do, keeping an open dialogue with your manager will smooth the path.
Most of the managers I coach really want to get it right when it comes to helping you combine being a new parent and having a demanding career. Where things go wrong is where there’s no communication. This is manifest in managers not wanting to put their foot in it, so they say as little as possible. This is then exacerbated by women feeling apprehensive so they tighten up in these initial conversations too, and that can set the tone where neither party is really talking about their concerns. I don’t think this ‘Business as Usual’ approach is realistic. You’re about to have a baby and they’re about to have a vacancy for an unspecified time. The best thing you can do to avoid being mummy-tracked is to keep the dialogue open with your manager, call it out if you suspect it’s happening and keep them appraised of your continued career commitment while at the same time sharing your concerns. And of course, you need to lock in that support network well in advance.