In an article that appeared in the Business Day on May 10, 2005, S’bu Mngadi, the corporate and strategy officer of Cell C writes about the importance of Take a Girl Child to Work Day, an initiative it sponsors. As someone who once was a girl child and is now privileged enough to work, I fully support the campaign’s laudable intentions.

I have never personally taken a girl child to work. Those who have tell me it can be a bit un-nerving to have an inquisitive fourteen-year old girl child peering over your shoulder the whole day as you respond to inane emails, saunter down to the pause area and generally try to look busy. Come to think of it, as a girl child I was taken to work on a couple of occasions. I remember being mind-numbingly bored. There is only so much time a girl child can spend swiveling on office chairs, photocopying her hand and smiling sweetly at the boss. How I wished at least one of my parents was a fireman (or woman).

To be truthful, going to work was less boring than doing domestic chores. So I suppose going to the office as a girl child may have been a factor in making me choose to be a working mother (sadly, not in the firefighting vocation). That and the support I get from my spouse, child-care provider and extended family. If this support was absent, I can say for certain that I would not be at work, and you would not be reading this article.

This is not to say that being a working mother, albeit one with a strong support network, is business as usual. I have come to the painful realisation that I cannot simultaneously meet my own expectations as to the level of productive output demanded from a professional and the quantum of nurturing input required from a good mother.

In part, some of the difficulties I experience stem from the fact that I am a management consultant. This is a difficult job at the best of times. Advising clients without ever having had the benefit of hands-on experience is never easy. Add to this a constraint on the number of working hours available postpartum. My child minder leaves at five – pretty much the halfway mark of a typical consulting day. Being sleep deprived also severely curtails a consultant’s ability to make things up really quickly, which in this business, is a CSF1. In addition, the increased levels of the hormone oxytocin that accompany lactation have been known to impair short-term memory. Oxytocin also makes people more trusting and benevolent. This can be absolutely fatal in the corporate environment.

From a strategic point of view, working mothers are what Michael Porter calls “Stuck in the Middle”, constantly at risk of losing market share to more focused competitors, be they ambitious male or childless colleagues at work or the child minder at home. I can’t quite decide whether it is more painful to watch interesting work being allocated to others or seeing the look of absolute delight on my baby’s face when his child minder takes him out of my arms. Porter’s solution – become a cost leader or a differentiator – sadly has no parallel for working mothers.

The most sensible advice seems to be that working mothers and those around them should lower their expectations in the workplace or risk losing out as a mother. Research conducted in the USA in 2001 revealed that 42% of female executives aged between 41 and 55 are childless3. In most cases this was not by design but by default.

I have yet so see similar research on South African women executives. The burden of professionals who are mothers in this country may well be lighter than that of their counterparts in the USA and Europe as a result of their ability to transfer much of their child-rearing responsibilities to a workforce of often dis-empowered domestic workers at low cost. While this creates employment, which is a good thing, it no doubt also creates a whole host of familial problems for domestic workers and their children. This issue too warrants greater investigation.

If I could be so bold as to generalize from my experiences, I would speculate that the primary cause of the relatively low number of female managers or professionals (see Table 1 below) is not girls’ perceptions that careers are for men and housework is for women. And while some girl children may be genuinely surprised to learn that women can become successful leaders, it is unlikely that this knowledge, all things remaining equal, will significantly enhance the likelihood of their doing so. In fact, it could create a set of unrealistic expectations about how much fun it is to be a working woman, particularly if that woman chooses to become a mother.

Surely if we want to encourage women to participate in the workplace, more attention must be paid to enabling them to reconcile the responsibilities of motherhood and the demands of the workplace. According to the 2001 Census, almost 80% of women under 50 are mothers. Roughly half have no spouse. Over one third of mothers under 50, have children under the age of four and a further 40% have children of school-going age.

Aside from this, for us to create a society where women choose to contribute in the workplace, we need men to be supportive of that choice. Perhaps we should expand Take a Girl Child to Work Day into Take a Girl Child to Work and Make a Boy Child Cook the Food, Look after Small Children, Clean the House and Do the Shopping Day.

We also need corporates to do more than endorse a day. Cell C, like the vast majority of South African corporates, does not offer childcare facilities for its employees. While Cell C offers generous maternity benefits (three months full pay and up to three months unpaid leave) its paternity benefits (three days), again in line with corporate norms in SA, do not appear to be designed to encourage equal parenting. Forgive me if these seem to be cheap shots, but it is difficult not to be skeptical of corporates who prefer to spend on high profile campaigns than to effect change from the inside out.


Article by Illana Melzer
Illana is a management consultant at Eighty20 Consulting, a consultancy that specializes in financial modeling and database work.

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