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Women in the Workforce and Maternity Leaves

When flexible work opportunities help redefine careers

By Jennifer Hargreaves

 

I love to work. It is a fundamental part of my personality. To be challenged, to learn and to grow. One of the harder choices I have been faced with was the decision to give up that piece of my personality and stay home to raise my young children or to give up that time with them to pursue my own goals. I did not want to compromise on either and I did not want to choose one over the other.

I hold a very strong view that given the right work environment women can successfully pursue both career and life ambitions, however they define that. I have now made it my mission to find those organizations and connect women to those opportunities so that I can ease that burden of choice and allow them to thrive.

My new career is in human resources and diversity. I started in business development and international market entry strategy for the ingredient and health sector. This is my journey and one that is all too familiar for many women leaving the traditional workforce.

 

From flying high to struggling to stand: The journey to my own business

From my first role out of university I have been exposed to senior-level and director-level in a male dominated sector. In the 10 years of experience I had in working to help companies expand their business offshore I never once felt undervalued or unheard. I was based in New Zealand and then New York helping companies develop new markets.

That changed when I moved to the United Kingdom. If I knew then, what I knew now…

What I didn’t know was that bias and discrimination still exists in the workforce. For me it began subtly ─ not having access to senior-level male contacts and being dismissed on an area of expertise. Quite frankly I thought it was their loss. I had a wealth of knowledge and access to very senior-level contacts that they could have benefited from. It bothered me less than it should have. I hoped they would come around as I proved myself.

Unfortunately I didn’t get that chance. After joking twice that this role wouldn’t suit someone looking to have a baby, I was made redundant at four months pregnant. This was a really hard pill to swallow. It was easier for me to believe that I had failed and that it was my fault than to believe that I was discriminated against.

That experience, combined with the desire to pursue career growth and parenting ambitions led me to launch tellent. I wanted to connect women to great places to work. Places where they could do both free from bias and discrimination.

 

From sitting on the sidelines to playing the game

Embarking on a new career path is daunting. Especially when you are effectively starting from scratch with no experience, expertise or subject knowledge. Regardless of the reason(s) for switching careers, breaking the inertia and taking that first step is tough.

Step one for me was to explore my options and to connect with people.

I reached out to my contacts and network to meet with people currently working in the industry. The more conversations I had, and coffee I drank, the more complete the picture became. I began to understand what I would need to further pursue this path and what I was getting into (the good and the bad).

Step two was to learn, and it was a steep learning curve! I started on my own and then took some classes for start-ups. It took me six months of research and courses to take the leap and invest my first dollar in the company.

It just got real. This was by far the hardest step for me. Mentally committing to the change and putting myself out there was really hard. Plagued by self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy the best piece of advice I was given was to “fake it ‘til you make it.” The more I got out there, the more positive the response was to what I was doing, which gave me the confidence I needed.

Be prepared to pivot. Where I am now, is not where I thought I would be when I started this journey. The one thing I have learned is that the only constant you can rely on is change. You have to learn to adapt and change as successes come through, or they don’t.

Surround yourself with a support system. Whether you are starting your own business or working in a new field. Friends and family made great cheerleaders but I also joined an entrepreneur start-up group, founded an experienced board of advisors and tapped into and partnered with people in the industry who were the experts.

Success is how you define it. I am working towards building a business that I am passionate about while I am raising my young children. I may not be pulling in millions yet but this is my version of success.

 

What is good for women as individuals is good for business and society

The desire to have access to flexible work is not a new phenomenon. What is relatively new is industry and government’s recognition of the benefits that diversity, specifically gender diversity, at senior levels can bring. From increased innovation and collaboration to better financial results. To remain competitive on a global scale it is becoming imperative that we tap into and retain female talent.

Women now represent nearly half of the paid workforce in Canada (47.2%) according to Statistics Canada. This has directly translated into an increase in dual income families and more significantly, an increase by 133% of women working with children under since 1976.

And yet in 2015, women only held 35.5% of all management positions and 33.3% of all senior management positions.

So we are employed in the workforce at virtually equal numbers but not in management and senior management levels.

Flexible work is only one piece of a complicated solution for attracting and retaining female talent and bolstering our leadership pipelines. But it is a critical one.

Inclusion is another. Fostering a workplace culture where employees can bring their whole, and authentic, self to work without fear of bias and discrimination is a challenge but is essential to keeping women once they have returned from maternity leave.

So I am unicorn hunting because one thing is for sure, ambition does not wear off with the epidural. Women may be leaving the traditional workforce but they are starting their own businesses and changing careers in droves. They are creating their own flexible schedules and traditional organizations are losing out.

As a friend of mine from WORKshift Canada said, “In a knowledge economy with technology that constantly makes connecting and collaborating easier, fighting to define an arbitrary line between work-life and personal-life is a fool’s game.” One that many companies are still playing.

And while companies are changing, some more quickly than others, we are still struggling with challenges in gender pay equity and economic empowerment. I am hopeful that with initiatives founded under Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government and organizations such at tellent, we can make change happen faster!

 

Defining your own version of success

Switching careers has been the best thing I have done. I talk with my members about defining their own version of success. This is mine. I am being challenged in starting my own business, I have the time with my young children which I will never get back and I am helping other women achieve their own version of success.

It is scary at times and there is no shortage of the imposter syndrome ─ but it is a wild ride and to me, that is what life is all about.

 

AUTHOR BIO

Jennifer Hargreaves is the founder of tellent, an online community committed to helping women pursue career and life ambitions through access to flexible work. Hargreaves was an accomplished international business growth specialist for small- and medium-sized enterprises in the health food, ingredient and dietary supplement sector. Her experience spans New Zealand, the US, United Kingdom and Canada. Based in Toronto, she is now a mother of two young children and starting up a new venture aimed at helping professional women find flexible careers.

Lucie Morillon
Lucie Morillon is the Bilingual Content & Communications Co-ordinator for CERIC. With a passion for quality content, she connects with her online communities and provides strong resources to engage members – and always encourages new ones to get involved. She identifies, creates and curates the content destined for the ContactPoint website, the weekly CareerWise newsletter and Careering magazine.

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