UAE: This Lebanese Expat Is Fighting 'Motherhood Penalty' By Promoting Mother-Inclusive Workplaces

(MENAFN- Khaleej Times) Published: Thu 20 Jun 2024, 10:08 PM

Having dedicated 15 years to ascending the corporate ladder, Mariana Missakian had meticulously crafted her future vision since childhood. Success, to her, meant achieving a prestigious job, a thriving career, owning a house, a car, and eventually starting a family when the time was 'right'. Thriving in her corporate role-building companies and managing teams-Mariana took on increasing responsibilities each year, delaying her plans to embark on her motherhood journey.

“I remember when I was first looking for a job, the HR department would always ask me when I planned to become a mother. I always found it shocking, as I was still a young adult myself, figuring things out,” says Mariana, who relocated to the UAE from Lebanon at 18 after getting married.

“That's when I decided that I'd only become a mom, and a full-time mom, when I felt safe," she adds. "And by 'safe', I meant secure in the corporate world, with an established reputation and track record, so it would be safe for me to take an extended maternity leave, with my position secure upon my return after a year. Or so I thought.”

A tough choice

Fifteen years into her corporate journey, when Mariana finally decided to embrace motherhood after checking off her list of prerequisites, welcoming her baby boy into the family, she found herself confronted with a tough choice.

“Post-maternity leave, I returned to work as usual. My career was something I had worked towards my entire life; I wasn't just going to let it all go. Until one day when I was summoned to the office and told, 'You need to choose,'” Mariana recounts.“I could either choose my family or choose my job. It was the most heartbreaking experience.”

Her child was around eight months old when she began hearing things in the office. "For instance, I wouldn't take my lunch break; instead, I would leave an hour early to go home and tend to my newborn." Being the only mother with a toddler in the office, her adjustments quickly became interpreted as a lack of commitment towards her work.

Mariana with her son Enzo

“I'd hear comments around but I just kept ignoring them until I was called into an office and told, 'You're not committed'. I was given the option to choose between my child or my job, which according to me, is not a fair choice," says Mariana.

Seasonality of life

Losing the career she had spent most of her adult life building, while adapting to the changes brought forth by being a new mom, marked a profound shift for the 30-something.“I had let my job, role, and career define me for 15 years, so losing all that when I became a mom made me feel like I had lost myself,” Mariana recalls.“I felt worthless, like a nobody because I didn't have my job anymore. I felt like I had disappointed that little girl who had wanted me to be so successful.”

This pivotal moment, however, sparked her journey of self-discovery and acceptance of her new role and responsibilities.“That's when I realised we're not meant to remain static. Life unfolds in seasons, and each season brings new opportunities for growth and learning."

"When we feel change, transformation, and transition, we need to accept it because there is no point in fighting it. There's a saying: 'Don't live the same year for 75 years and call it a life'. This needs to be ingrained in our consciousness," says Mariana, who's currently spearheading a challenge against UAE tech businesses regarding their hiring practices for mothers in leadership positions.

Her doctoral research, as well as active advocacy online, sheds light on the unique hurdles faced by mothers in the workplace, while lobbying for increased representation and robust support for women in higher managerial positions.

Conflict is cue

How does one figure out they are going through a different season? Conflict is one of the best signals, explains Mariana.“When I became a full-time mom-a role I had always wanted-suddenly there was this conflict inside me. I was doing something I always wanted to do, which was to be a full-time mom."

"But at the same time, I was being judged for it, sidelined for it, excluded for it. That's where you see some kind of conflict arising. I had always trusted myself until that moment, so I had to ask myself why wasn't I trusting myself in this new role?”

When transitioning from one season of life to another, the presence of conflict, guilt, and doubt can indicate that a transformative shift is underway, she adds.“It can go either way. You can either sink into a deep, dark hole and say, 'It's me, I can't do it', or you can choose to ask, 'What did this shift come to teach me?' After three years, I finally pulled myself up from that bathroom floor and asked this question.”

Initially struggling with judgement and self-doubt, these challenges became catalysts for her personal growth, pushing her to redefine success beyond traditional societal metrics. Through her satirical memoir, That Suburbia Lady, Mariana has addressed the internal conflict and guilt she faced, embracing full-time motherhood.

"The book contains 40 short stories from the year I turned 40. Each story was part of my journey to find my identity and discover who I was at 40, beyond what the society had labelled me as. I always had a dream to write a book and this new season of my life meant that I could finally embrace this dream," says Mariana.

The 'right' time

So, is there ever a 'right' time to plan motherhood?“There's no right time,” responds Mariana.“I say in my book, I worked for 15 years to prepare for motherhood-financially, in my corporate job, and career-wise. Three years before conceiving, I stopped drinking, stopped dyeing my hair, and started exercising to prepare my body for pregnancy."

"I thought I was doing everything right, ticking the boxes on how to have a healthy child and be a healthy, happy mom. What I didn't know-and this is a quote I found-is that the mother is born only when the child is born," she adds. "We will only know who we are as mothers when we meet our child."

In today's day and age, many young women are postponing motherhood due to the fear that they will lose their edge in their career or face scrutiny over their career ambitions, as in the case of Mariana.“This is becoming an issue across the globe. We need to make companies responsible for their role, not just towards the mother, but towards the family,” she adds.

“I was 20 when I had to delay my pregnancy for 15 years because I thought I had to reach a certain stage in my career where I had job stability. But even if I were single, that question would always be on HR's mind: How long until she gets married? How long before she has a child? This needs to change."

Building mother-inclusive workplaces

As a result, companies should prepare to become mother-inclusive from the moment a single woman comes in, argues Mariana.“HR and hiring managers need to make women comfortable with the idea that if they have a child and return to work, they will be supported. So, they can have the freedom, the safe space, to not postpone their pregnancy because of their career, but to let it happen naturally.”

Through her postdoctoral research, Mariana is working towards developing an organisational framework for a mother-inclusive-not just mother-friendly-work environment.“The term“mother-friendly” drives me crazy."

“We do not want“mother-friendly” organisations. We want mother-inclusive workplaces, not just for the mothers of today, but for the mothers of tomorrow. Women need to be supported in all the seasons of their lives-whether they're single, married, having a baby, raising a second child, or going through menopause-now there are discussions around that," she adds.

Addressing motherhood penalty

The term 'motherhood penalty' refers to the economic disadvantages and career setbacks that mothers often face in the workplace compared to their childless counterparts.

This penalty can manifest in various forms, including lower wages, fewer promotions, reduced job opportunities, and biased treatment due to perceptions of decreased commitment or productivity after becoming mothers and is "one of the biggest inhibitors for women's careers, contributing to gender inequality in the workforce,” says Mariana.

"Research suggest that majority of women who have reached top leadership positions, director-level and above, have chosen not to have children because they are aware of the 'motherhood penalty'. We know it exists, companies know it exists. Yet, we choose to remain silent.”

Motherhood & gender leadership gap

Gender diversity in the workplace, referring to achieving a balance between men and women across various roles and levels within an organisation, has emerged as a central topic in contemporary workplace discussions. However, it can easily become reduced to just being a numbers game, a way for companies to“boast their diversity quota”.

We need to be asking more nuanced questions when it comes to closing the gender leadership gap, Mariana mentions.“Don't just tell me you've hired 10 women. Tell me how many of them are still with the company. Tell me how many of them are in the leadership pipeline. How many are being groomed for management or leadership positions?"

"Don't talk to me about diversity; talk to me about inclusion and equity. That's wha will ensure that mothers are represented in every meeting room, involved in every major decision-making process, and integrated into a company's leadership pipeline," she adds.

“We can recruit as many women as we want, but unless we support them through their journey of motherhood, we will never close the gender leadership gap. It's the biggest missing piece of the puzzle."



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Khaleej Times

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