Cherie O’Riordan, a Brisbane-based management accountant and mother of two, had many reasons behind her decision to return to work after a year off with her second child. Of course, there were financial considerations – covering the household bills, as well as ensuring there was food on the table. But it was also a personal choice. "I just needed to get out and be out of the house and start using my head again, doing something challenging in a different way [to being at home with the kids],” she says.
She was also keen to stay up to date with the industry. “Obviously as an accountant you've got to stay abreast of the latest standards and regulations, and you can get a bit out of date very quickly. It's important to get back into that again, to keep abreast of what's going on.”
Despite these motivations, returning to the workforce after having a child was not an easy task. There were a number of unique challenges Cherie had to address and overcome if she wanted to make it work. These included adjusting to new hours, dealing with prejudice during the candidate-selection process and maintaining a harmonious balance between work and family. The following are some tips and advice for other working mums on how to deal with the challenges of returning to work.
1. Increase your hours gradually
Cherie’s now been back at work three days a week for five months at an engineering consultancy. This temporary contract gave her a foot in the door to a permanent job – she’s just accepted a role as finance manager.
She says starting with part-time work before going full-time helped her and her family manage the return to work after each child. “I think it's easier to step up gradually. It's what I did last time too. I went back three days a week and increased it to four, and within about 12 months I was working full-time again.”
She says increasing her hours to full-time is easier after working part-time because the kids are settled into day care and she and her partner are confidently juggling their responsibilities.
2. Be choosy about the right fit
A 2014 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 49 per cent of women experienced discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work. This was also a concern for Cherie. “A lot of finance teams do tend to have a culture of working long hours. So it was a bit of a worry for me […] to be that person who walks out the door at five o'clock every day because they've got to get their kids.”
For Cherie, starting with part-time work was a must, but she warns that not all part-time roles are created equal. “I think the key is to be a little bit selective about the type of companies that you're interviewing with. Are they just trying to squeeze someone into three days a week but it will actually be full-time hours? Is it just that the workload isn't there for a full-time employee? I think you've just got to look at the industry you're working in and the type of company and what their reasons are for offering a part-time role.”
When meeting with potential employers, it’s wise to remember your rights. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 makes it against the law for you to be treated unfairly because you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or have family responsibilities. It’s also illegal to ask interview questions like: "Who will look after your kids when you're at work?"
That said, job interviews are a two-way street and Cherie recommends using the interview stage to suss out the workplace culture of your potential employer, and to make sure their expectations and yours will match. “I think you're better off being upfront [about being a parent] in the interview and maybe missing out on that job if it's not the right culture fit, and waiting for that right fit.”
3. Consider using a recruitment professional
To find roles where people could trust she’d get the work done, Cherie first contacted people who knew her and her work ethic. Unfortunately at the time, no one in her network had anything available that was right for her, so she turned to a recruiter she’d used in the past. “A lot of the more reputable companies tend to use professionals. I think you just find there's a bit more of a selection out there.”
Cherie knew that working only three days a week might limit her job options, but was pleased to find the perfect role within a month. “The recruiter took a lot of the heavy lifting out of my job search and would often call me up with opportunities that I might not have found by looking on job sites. I thought it was going to be a lot harder than it actually was."
4. Create success at work with equality at home
Finding a balance between work and family is always a tough task for a working mum, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is well known to advocate a 50/50 split of domestic duties. In her book Lean In she writes: "I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of a single woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully – and I mean fully – supportive of her career. No exceptions.”
The importance of a 50/50 split in the home rings true for Cherie. “My husband is a great support. I don't think I could even consider working full-time unless I had his support at home.”
In practical terms, this means Cherie and her husband share the childcare run, and he takes advantage of his flexible working hours to pick up the slack during her busy periods like end-of-month accounts. At home, a cleaner helps with the housework each week.
Although they have established a good routine, work-life balance for Cherie is always a work in progress. “Every day we've got to have a plan in place. My husband and I talk about work schedules the night before and who wants to go to the gym in the morning, who wants to do the afternoon. You've just got to work together.”
The return to work is one of the toughest transitions of parenthood. There are plenty of pros, cons and competing priorities to consider. But if you are clear about the hours you want to work, take the time to find the right cultural fit and redistribute the workload at home, everybody benefits.