Business Basics

Forget the glass ceiling its the maternal wall that’s holding women back

- November 18, 2019 3 MIN READ

Jessica Osborn says that her highly successful corporate career was stopped in its tracks not by a glass ceiling, but by the lesser-acknowledged ‘maternal wall’. Now, as a business and marketing coach, she’s supporting women to turn the corporate ‘shove’ into a small business leap. 

It’s taken me over two years to be comfortable talking about my humiliating departure from the corporate world. My experience – like that of so many others – feels a bit ‘taboo’. You find yourself ousted from your career, by force or by stealth, and with that comes this feeling of shame, of self-blame.

So, what did I do wrong?

I became a mum.

The first time I returned from maternity leave, I compressed my full-time hours to work them over four days. In those four days, I managed an incredibly high-performing team in an ASX listed company, kicking goals all over the place.

I was an achiever, holding her own at the top table; delivering results for a company worth billions of dollars. And then, suddenly, I was being excluded; no longer empowered to do my own job and completely shut off from opportunities to extend. It came to a head with an attempt to restructure me into a lesser role. After six years of dedication and acknowledged high performance, I was given two options – accept a demotion or leave. 

An all-too-common experience

I left, with my head held high but my confidence in my boots. Until, that is, I discovered that I’m not alone in my experience. You won’t have to cast your net very widely to discover a mum whose career has ground to a halt, thanks to the ‘maternal wall’. I encounter them every single day.

For those who roll their eyes at the term and the inference, I ask you – find me a man who was told they wouldn’t be interested in their career once the baby arrived. That little gem from the CEO will forever be imprinted on my memory.

Throwaway remarks are just the tip of a career-smashing iceberg of unconscious bias and unfounded assumptions. No matter how many hours you put in, no matter the results you deliver, your commitment is always in doubt. It’s as though employers think we leave our ambition and our expertise in the delivery room.

In actual fact, the drive to succeed is perhaps even greater after becoming a parent. Not just to provide for your family, but because that personal fulfilment and sense of achievement – that fragment of the ‘you’ that existed before children – is precious beyond measure.

Taking the plunge

So, there I was, confidence in pieces. Deprived of the safety net of employment, I had no choice but to back myself and jump headlong into the business I had tentatively established while on maternity leave. Today, I’m super grateful that I was forced on to a new path. My work delivers a tangible, human impact; supporting women – just like me – to achieve their potential despite a devastating workplace (and perhaps social) bias.

It’s taken me two years to be comfortable talking about my corporate achievements – to feel any sort of pride and ownership in my success. But once you’ve been brought up short by the ‘maternal wall’, you have two choices – believe the narrative, or defy it. And that’s where the women I work with need the most help; believing that they’re good enough and that people will pay for their expertise. I coach women to recognise and charge their worth. I show them how to turn a ‘push’ out of employment into the propulsion they need to succeed in business. And it’s a battle I continue to fight myself.

Now I coach women to define the lifestyle they need and want, and work backwards from there to find their passions and strengths. By building a lifestyle – as well as an income – they can fully enjoy the rewards of their commitment, expertise and ambition. Those very qualities that were so short-sightedly overlooked by employers who couldn’t see beyond one little word.

Mum.

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