Do you remember a post I wrote last year about why I left my previous job? One of the main reasons being the deteriorating relationship between my tax partner and tax manager (after her return from maternity leave) over mismatched expectations, lack of communication and poor conflict resolution. This put me in a difficult position in the middle between the both of them and I hated it. Would you believe it if I say I can see it starting to happen again in my current team? But it’s my senior who is the one stuck in that difficult position between my senior manager and manager. Different industries, positions, people and work environment but with similar problems arising upon the return from maternity leave.
I feel for my senior. Even though things are not as bad, I understand his frustration, annoyance and disappointment with our managers well. Since a few of us are actively helping to resolve the conflicts, this situation might hopefully turn out better for him. The key thing to do at this stage is to stop the escalation and building of resentment on both sides before the relationship becomes irreparable. We are doing everything we can to make this happen since all of us have a common goal of ensuring harmonious working relationships between everyone in the team.
It has also become clear to me that managing a return to the workplace from maternity leave is one of the biggest challenges for the modern millennial woman. Maybe this was always the case but I had to see it for myself to understand how difficult it can be. When you take maternity leave to have a child, a replacement is usually hired to cover you during that period of time. Depending on how long you are gone, this can evovle from a temporary arrangement into a permanent one. Upon your return, you will find that everything has changed. The team dynamics, relationships, your role etc.
If you are too passive about your approach to re-integrating back into the workplace, your career can become stagnant for a long time since you get overlooked for promotion or are stuck doing junior tasks. If you are too aggressive, you create conflicts with the existing team members that have gotten used to working together without you. In my previous job, my tax manager applied the passive approach and gradually stepped back from her roles and responsibilities. She had negative performance reviews and was not seen to be doing enough to justify her position as a tax manager. In my current job, my manager applied the aggressive approach and challenged my senior manager on his decisions and allocations of roles and responsibilities. She was seen to be rocking the boat unnecessarily despite not having a good understanding of the project management aspects and progress schedule.
It’s tough to navigate your way through this. And I can see it happening to my wife when it’s her turn to take maternity leave to have a kid in the future. I honestly don’t have any good suggestions for her at this time. As a partner to a modern millennial woman, what I can do is to understand the challenges & difficulties she face and support her. There are many forms of this support infrastructure:
- Emotional – To listen and communicate with her about work issues and problems
- Financial – To earn enough to give her the option to take extended leave from work or stop work at any time
- Home – To help out with the housework, paying of bills, grocery shopping and taking care of the child by myself so she can have her own time off
I don’t envy being in the position of a modern millennial woman. Somewhere along the last 2 decades, so many things have happened that have benefited and cost her greatly.
She is expected to have a good career and a loving family with children
How did this happen? In the earlier generations, men were expected to have good careers but family came under the domain of women. In the modern world, men are still expected to have good careers and should help out with the family. But women are now expected to pull their own weight financially, held to the same expectations as men in the workplace and yet be the primary caregiver of the family. Look around you and you can see it happening everywhere. In both my wife and my workplaces, the women are usually the ones that end up taking childcare leave to look after the children when they are sick or to take them for their appointments. That’s not to say the men aren’t doing it but they are not expected to do so and are usually given more credit than they are due when doing it. Which is a big difference.
I have lost count of the number of times my wife gets asked by family (direct and extended), friends and colleagues about when we will be having children. We have never once asked anyone this question and don’t understand why we are getting asked this question so many times. It’s like our household isn’t complete unless we have children. Or she is not seen to be an actual woman until she becomes a mother. It’s amazing when I think about the number of approaches I have seen on this topic. There’s family pressure, peer pressure, passive-aggressive, direct, indirect, subtle, etc. My wife has to deal with this a lot than me. It’s like she’s the one seen to be responsible for us not starting a family yet. Never mind the fact that we are not ready yet and made this decision together.
She is expected to be the breadwinner at times
With the worsening economy, the likelihood of retrenchment increases for both men and women. What happens when the men loses their jobs is that the women have to step in to the role of breadwinner. This means that you are now the one responsible for earning enough to put food on the table, pay the bills, take care of the mortgage/rent etc. Family decisions now revolve around you because your pay keeps the family afloat. It’s a stressful position to be in and it’s actually worse than it sounds. Because nobody prepared you for this role when you were growing up. More accurately, nobody told you this is a very possible outcome for you in this day and age.
How to test this? It’s easy. As a modern millennial woman, are you earning more than your partner? If no, why is that the case and are you more concerned with protecting his or your job income source? If yes, are you okay with your partner earning less than you?
The experience of my wife and I is a good example of this and we don’t even have kids yet. After graduating from university and ever since our first full-time jobs, my wife has out-earned me consistently. In fact, this pay gap between us has increased over the years as she becomes older, wiser, stronger and more mature. It’s not for lack of effort on my part because I’m not too bad myself. She is just better than me when it comes to navigating our corporate careers. We made all of the decisions to stay in Melbourne, move to Sydney and eventually back to Singapore because of her job progress. I was just doing my best to bridge with each move by finding an equivalent job position.
In some sense, my wife was the breadwinner because we were making decisions around her. She was only in her early and mid twenties. Growing up, the message my wife got was that even though she can do everything a man does in this day and age, she should still preferably find a partner that loves her and who can support her financially if need be. You can imagine her surprise when my wife found herself in the driving seat. It’s stressful and the comments made by our families, friends and colleagues don’t help. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Why am I doing this to her? We got through it but don’t be shocked by how negative the reaction can be from the people around you in such a situation.
She has to deal with the boys’ club at work
I’m sure you have heard of this topic being discussed before – the existence of a boys’ club culture in the workplace. This is especially the case in male-dominated workplaces and very possible in non male-dominated workplaces. It’s probably less of a problem in female-dominated workplaces. However, as long as senior management continue to be male-dominated, you are going to get one version of the boys’ club or another. Which sadly applies to most industries.
The effects are damaging. Women have been excluded, undermined, bullied and discredited because of this. It happened to my wife’s colleague and it got to the point where she ended up leaving the team because of it. My wife is experiencing a much milder version of this but it still stings. I’m quite sure I wasn’t part of a boys’ club when I was working in Melbourne and Sydney. Reason is simple. I didn’t have enough of a common background and experience with the local guys to be a part of it. Probably why I got along better with the non-locals than locals even at work. In my previous firm in Singapore, most of my team were non-locals and a boys’ club can’t form when your manager and senior manager are women. Thank goodness for that.
But things are different in my current firm in Singapore. My senior manager is a man and we have enough local guys to form a boys’ club. And so we did. Sigh. I didn’t even realise I was in one until my wife told me. I thought us guys were just lunching together because we got along and worked well together. It didn’t hurt that my senior manager was sounding us out on his plans for the team without the women present. After all, isn’t it a good thing our opinions mattered to the senior manager?
My peers and I all have working wives that are doing everything they can to deal with the boys’ club at their workplaces. We support them fully in their careers so how did we end up creating the exact same problem in our workplace? There’s no simple answer. People gravitate to others that they connect with on a personal, social and professional level. Especially in times of conflict like when a line got drawn between my male senior manager and female manager who returned from maternity leave. Whose side are you on? This was essentially the question we got asked and how do you think we responded? I know what it’s like to be a guy on the outside of a boys’ club. You are seen as an outcast and standing on no man’s land without support from either side. Nobody would willing choose to be there if they had a choice.
There is no easy way to dismantle the boys’ club as long as senior management continues to be male-dominated. In time, men might change the way they behave at work and not take such actions to cause the formation of a boys’ club intentionally or not. However, we are the problem and I wouldn’t count on us to be the solution. But we can try not to contribute to the problem or make it worse. We can also support our wives much more at home, in their careers and push them to become better. Over time, as more women take on senior management roles, I believe the boys’ club will become less prevalent. I certainly hope so for my wife’s sake.