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IWD Special 7 Mar 2021 - 2 min read

Go hard, forgive yourself and be present

By Karen Halligan - Director, Media Value Advisory, KPMG

Karen Halligan, Director, Media Value Advisory, KPMG, says the glass ceiling for women that become mothers remains all too real. Go hard and smash it, she urges, and never feel guilty.

"I believe we should never feel compelled to explain our circumstances. If that means you take a role and two weeks later you announce a pregnancy then so be it – that is true equality."

Karen Halligan

From speaking with many female colleagues apparently, there is never a good time to start a family and let’s be honest the juggle is tough, you just need to see my three girls sporting commitments to wonder how I manage it. 

On the home front you are trying to be a great mother, spend time with your family and get the balance right, which is an eternal struggle that I don’t always achieve.  Professionally especially in the early days the fear of being sidelined, pigeonholed or pushed into a role with less responsibility is real and while less common, it still happens today.

Many times, it is coming from a business that is convinced that the suggested changes to your remit are in your “best interests” or to “allow you to be a better mother” but that is not always the case.  In the worst instances – and some of these have happened directly to me and my friends: your role is reduced, salary amended; you are pushed into a role you can’t manage part time to encourage you to resign; your job is made redundant via a restructure; or while you are on maternity leave you discover that all of your male peers earn more than you.

I was forced to face into this reality not long after I got married. Initially I was asked questions from people I worked with like “is your family putting pressure on you to have kids” through to direct questions of “when are you planning on having kids as we are restructuring”.

Prior to hitting this stage I had never felt the impact of the so-called glass ceiling. In fact, if you asked me at 25 I would have vehemently denied that it existed – and in truth for me until I got closer to “the baby cutoff age” it hadn’t.

However, it wasn’t until I answered a now illegal question incorrectly that the reality started to hit home.  At the time I was being considered for a more senior role, I was called into an office and asked directly if I was planning on having another child, to which I replied yes. 

As you read this I imagine you are probably shaking your head, thinking, idiot, why did you say that? But you see three weeks earlier I had experienced a miscarriage at work and I was still reeling from the loss. My work was not aware of the miscarriage as I didn’t want to raise a red flag that I would soon be seeking maternity leave, which is another issue that many of us face.

Needless to say, I was not formally approached for the role and the opportunity passed me by.  It was many years later when the kids hit primary school that I managed to get to that level.

While in some areas things have moved on,, in some others, they haven’t. One thing I am often bewildered by is why vulnerability when demonstrated by women is packaged up as us being overly emotional, yet in men it can be celebrated.

Push more, worry less

As I think about this year’s #ChooseToChallenge theme for International Woman’s Day, my tips to young women entering this phase of life are to go hard, forgive yourself and be present.

By go hard I believe we should never feel compelled to explain our circumstances. If that means you take a role and two weeks later you announce a pregnancy then so be it – that is true equality.

When I first returned to work I wasted way too many hours wracked with guilt about letting either my work or family down. Guilt is a futile emotion that serves no purpose but to make you miserable. When I stopped the guilt it was replaced by joy.

My last tip is to be present where you are. –At home for me that means stopping everything for at least a few hours and giving 100% of my attention to the kids. At work my focus is fully on the tasks at hand.

The day you make a conscious decision to stop feeling bad about where you are not and start to be present where you are is life changing.

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