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Empowering women as 
mothers and leaders

Michael McVeigh |  23 May 2017

Can a mother really have a successful career and a happy family life? Prue Gilbert knows it’s possible if workplaces allow it. A mother of three herself, Prue is working with organisations across the country to support women in remaining in the workforce.

A few years ago, when she was working as a general counsel for a company in Sydney, Prue Gilbert noticed a trend happening around her. Women would spend many years studying and working to become successful in their career, fall pregnant, and then leave the organisation.

The assumption was that these women had chosen to raise a family rather than work. Research indicates that 30 per cent of women will leave their work while pregnant, while on maternity leave, or shortly after returning to work from maternity leave. However, Prue wondered what was driving all this talent and expertise out of organisations.

‘Are these women making an informed decision that this is what they want to do, or is it that they don’t believe that they can have both a career and a family? Or because they were driven out because of discrimination?’ she asked.

Prue’s organisation, Grace Papers, was born out of her desire to help women (and men) be more empowered in the decisions they make around work, family and career. The organisation was launched in 2015, and has won a human rights award for their work.

Studies show one in two women report experiencing pregnancy-related discrimination. Prue wants workplaces to be more inclusive of working parents.

‘In Australia the average age of a first-time mother is now 29. So most women have had a career for ten years, and it’s a significant part of their identity. There’s a real lack of support in helping women transition in and out of the workplace’, she says.

Finding freedom

Prue says social justice is part of her DNA, and was raised a feminist, but her desire has been strengthened and shaped by her experiences in the workplace. As a young lawyer, she was forced to resign from a firm after experiencing sexual harassment. That experience made her more aware of the issues young women face in employment, and more determined to do something about them.

A former student at Loreto Mandeville Hall in Melbourne, Prue has also drawn a great deal of strength from her faith. She undertook the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius in 2013, embarking on the retreat in daily life with a spiritual director. That experience, she says, helped her find a sense of her God-given purpose in the world.

‘I found it really attractive to do that hard work of getting to know who I was, understanding my strength, my story and how that all came together in what has become my vocation’, she says.

‘It was (Loreto Sister) Rachel McLoughlin who came up with our mission statement – “Fly into freedom”. It’s what we want for our clients, and also my experience. It’s very liberating to know what’s your ultimate purpose, and to be able to navigate your way by continually coming back to that.’

Helping men and women adjust to parenthood

Grace Papers works with 18 clients across government and business, offering digital coaching courses for women and men so they are accompanied and supported in their journey towards parenthood.

Including men in their programs, along with women, is vital, says Prue. And not just because 30 per cent of all victims of domestic violence experience their first episode when pregnant.

‘If women are to realise their potential professionally, if they are able to live a life without fear of male abuse, then men must be able to care, to parent, and to show vulnerability and fear without recrimination or judgment based on an out-dated stereotype about “what a real man does” ’, she says.

‘The feedback that we get from our offerings for men is really quite transformational. They feel that they are able to express vulnerability in a different way, and to start different conversations with their partners in ways that they’ve never done before.’

‘They’ve got a framework to be able to talk about what their values are, what they want their parenting legacy to be, to look at parenting and family responsibilities through a different lens, and to initiate conversations about that rather than just rolling through and reverting to what their parents did.’

With women, some of the work is similar 

Helping them to consider their goals, and how they see themselves in their career and their home life. It can also involve empowering them to challenge barriers that arise in their employment. Prue says one client, a senior teacher, wanted to return to work while also not missing out on the early years with her baby.

‘But when she asked for flexibility to do a seven-day fortnight, the school said that it couldn’t be done because they had never done it before’, she says.

‘Our digital journey helped her realise that she wanted to return to work, that she was good at what she did and had a proven track record of delivering significant outcomes for students. So we used a combination of her achievements, her vision for her career, and her desire to work flexibly, to create a business case.

‘She became the first teacher to work flexibly, and it has been so successful that they now have several teachers doing the same.’

Addressing gender inequality

Women make up a large portion of the workforce in the Catholic sector – working in education, social welfare and health. Yet the same issues arise there that prevent women reaching the upper levels of management in organisations. It is wrongly assumed that women lose ambition when they have children.

Prue says the first thing that organisations need to do is acknowledge that bias exists. This also means recognising the inherited patriarchal structures and attitudes that form part of the culture, often subconsciously.

‘In our experience, once organisations acknowledge that gender inequality exists, for both sexes, they can be far more willing to embrace the need for change and start to look at whether are actually inclusive’, she says.

‘What we find is that those gendered expectations tend to begin at pregnancy. The data will tell us that there’s a penalty for women when they have a baby, and yet there’s a promotion for men when they have their first baby.’

Catholic organisations are values driven, she says, and so need to see they have a responsibility to help tackle the broader issues of gender inequality that give rise to issues like sexual harassment, financial discrimination, and of course, family violence.

‘You’ve got this spectrum of on the one hand we don’t have gender equality in leadership, and at the other end of the spectrum we have family violence. The more that respect for women is role modelled in leadership, then the more likely we are to address those other issues.’

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Topic tags: familylife, catholicsocialteaching, socialjustice–australia

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