Just don’t tell them you’re a single mum – the advice I ignored

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Fiona McUtchen shares her perspective on being a #proudsinglemother this International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day holds special significance for me this year.  2017 being the 10-year anniversary of when I sat a panel interview for my first professional job as an Entry Level Organisational Psychologist with Chandler Macleod. The interview was held just one floor down from where I write this story now.

A few months into starting in the role, my manager told me something that has stayed with me to this day. He told me the reason he was compelled to hire me was not because of my university scores, my experience in a similar role leading up to the interview or because my thesis happened to be on Emotional Intelligence – very much the hot topic of the consulting world at the time. Those achievements were considered on their merits – but there was one other aspect which had the most positive impact – part of my story which I was warned against mentioning by more than a few people if I was really serious about getting the job.

That was the part about me being a single 20s-something mum who worked part time at a café and got through six years of university with a primary school aged daughter. In a strange twist at the time, it was the single professional white collar male with no kids who was my biggest advocate, who immediately perceived this life experience as an asset – something that would enhance my performance and value to the business, not detract from it.

I feel like a decade later, we have come some way. Maybe those that so ardently bid me to self-censor would be slightly more open-minded or even positive now? There has been a shift – perhaps not en masse – but definitely a swing towards people being less hesitant in sharing their stories about being an active and invested mum who also happens to be searching for her next dream role or career opportunity. I’m glad I didn’t shy away from it all those years ago, as tempted as I might have been to avoid ‘advertising’ that I was a mum – especially a single one.

But I also appreciate that not everyone would have looked at things the way my manager did. Many of the women I have worked with and coached in recent years sadly have the opposite story to tell – experiences of both the subtle and not so subtle discrimination which we know continues to be widespread in Australia and other ‘developed’ countries (Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review – Report, Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014).

The attributes I developed as a single parent also made me a highly-valued employee.

I don’t know if he’s aware of it today, but that manager had an enormous impact on my life. Not only by giving me the opportunity to develop professionally at Chandler Macleod, but also on my continued confidence in being able to bring my whole self to work each day. And he was right – the attributes I developed as a single parent also made me a highly-valued employee. The team I managed out of hours may have only been a team of two – myself and my eight-year-old daughter at the time, but the skills and virtues I developed at home were invaluable to my practice as a Psychologist – particularly those of empathy, resilience, flexibility, creativity, and time management.

That day in 2007 set the tone for things to come. Chandler Macleod has been through enormous change in the last ten years and we have had some dramatic ups and downs like every business, but at every step the business has supported me as a working professional parent.  In the last three years I have had three more beautiful daughters– and whilst it is fair to say that situation was met by some with looks of shock and astonishment (myself included for number four!), it hasn’t slowed down my career. In fact, between baby number two and three, I was offered a promotion to Principal Psychologist, and after my final baby number four last July, I was offered the national role of Project Manager for our internal Culture and Values transformation across Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

This was a project I was incredibly passionate about and one that I had asked to be involved in, thinking that may see me running some workshops or doing backend design work. The response from the EGM of HR was to ask if I was interested in being Project Manager -and I could perform this role according to my schedule and the children’s’ needs as long as this worked for the project as well. Finally after years of helping other companies design and develop their ideal culture, I was able to be part of driving that change in my own organisation – I imagined it was similar to what an architect must feel when they finally get to design and live in their own house.

I don’t make these points to be boastful – either for myself or Chandler Macleod – but to share my experience as a positive example of how organisations can embrace working mothers and be bold in the career opportunities they offer. I genuinely feel lucky that I have had a decade of support and encouragement, without bias and without ever being made to feel lesscapable or committed because of the equal investment and energy I put into my family.

But when I think about my daughters and the opportunities they will be given when they enter the world of work, which is not far away for daughter #1 who has just finished high school,  I hope that feeling of being lucky is replaced by a feeling of legitimacy. I hope by then that will be the norm not the exception. IWD is a perfect time to start sharing the stories and examples of how we can make this happen so let’s have the conversation and #beboldforchange #iwd2017

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