Driving positive solutions to workplace challenges faced by career mums

Career or family? A predicament for all New Zealanders


Lack of women in senior positions, and lower birth rates among career-focused women should be a concern for all New Zealanders – not just for the government, and not just for women.

The number of childless women in the age group 50-54 grew to 15 percent in the last census (2013), compared with fewer than 10 percent in 1996. This figure is highest for educated women (with a bachelors degree or higher) at 18 percent, versus women with no formal qualification, at 10 percent childlessness. This is coupled with a steady increase in the number of women having children in their 40’s (Source: Statistics New Zealand).

At the heart of this trend is our poor performance at supporting women to progress their careers following maternity leave.

The leaking talent pipeline is not a new phenomenon. It pertains to the loss of talent that exists when women stall their careers to start a family and don’t re-engage their career, or take a step back. The effect of doing little about this leaking talent is that we are seeing a growing trend of women who are instead stalling their family ambitions in preference of their career.

This is having an impact on our economy

Delayed childbirth, women having fewer children, and an increase in childlessness, all contribute to an ageing population in New Zealand.

A diminishing birth rate among educated, career-driven women means we are not sowing the seeds of our future.

And by leaking talent we are not powering up our economy to its full potential.

This is further exacerbated with the high cost of housing influencing childbearing decisions, as dual income savings and mortgages become a reality.

Whichever way you look, we are hampering our economy, and we are cementing a legacy whereby women make a choice between their career and starting a family.

Career and parenthood can be done

The early years of parenthood are challenging times. That’s not to say parents can’t hold a career, but our traditional expectations of work conflicts with parenthood.

With baby or toddler in care, the stakes have grown – and unless the work environment is a challenging and rewarding place, and the business can operate with flex, we will continue to lose talent.

In this dual income era, neither should we be seeing a growing trend of pre-school children enrolled in full-time care, as the only way for women to resume and grow their career. Twenty percent of children attending early childhood education during 2014 were enrolled for 30 hours or more per week, with 8.5 percent attending for 42 hours or more. This is a marked increase from 14 years earlier, where just over 11 percent were enrolled for 30 hours or more, and 2.8 percent for 42 hours or more[1] (Source: Ministry of Education). We should be seeking and promoting better solutions to maintain talent, while enabling parents to have time with their children.

This isn’t just an issue for the government. It’s also time for businesses and industries to step up. And with New Zealand’s labour productivity lagging other OECD economies, and a comparably long working week, we have strong reason to change the way we work – to utilise latent talent, to value skill and achievement ahead of hours clocked, and to employ the right person for the job – regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or family status.

Important initiatives are underway to increase the number of women in senior roles – but our leaking talent needs more attention

The number of women in senior roles has become increasingly under the spotlight both in New Zealand and overseas, with a number of initiatives underway, such as Global Women’s ‘Champions for Change’ programme, and Governance NZ’s focus on increasing the number of women in governance.

With only 19 percent of officer roles, and 17 percent of director roles held by women among NZX listed companies during 2015, these are important initiatives.

However, focusing solely on increasing the number of women in senior roles will be an empty achievement if it is at the expense of delaying childbirth.

Increased focus is needed on minimising the leaking talent – seeking opportunities to better support women to resume and grow their careers successfully after childbirth. By doing this we will grow the pool of talented women in the workplace, and we will see role models emerging – those who are raising a family alongside their successful career.

Being proactive needn’t come at a cost
  1. Flexible work arrangement is a ripe space for businesses to consider.

What if, instead of wondering what jobs could be done by flexible arrangement, we asked, “What jobs can’t be done?

With much research pointing to the many benefits of flexible work arrangements for all employees, neither should career mums be singled out for seeking such opportunities. To the contrary, providing flexibility for working dads also benefits the family structure.

  1. Monitor retention

How many businesses know what their retention of female employees after childbirth is, and how many encourage new mothers back to work? At the end of June 2014, 27.7 percent (close to 132,000) of mothers with a dependent child[2]  were not in the labour force (that is, they were not considered employed – which would include those on parental leave – nor unemployed). Of those in employment, approximately 44 percent with children under 14, and 30 percent of mothers with a youngest child aged 14 or over, work part-time hours – regarded as less than 30 hours per week[3] (Source: Statistics NZ). Open dialogue and an eye on the bigger picture will often provide smart ways of supporting women to re-engage their career.

  1. Challenge unconscious bias; embrace diversity

Unconscious bias has often been regarded as one of the biggest challenges facing women as they grow their career. McKinsey’s Lareina Yee, in her article, ‘Fostering women leaders: a fitness test for your top team’ talks about “rooting out” unconscious bias as a key method for growing the number of women in senior leadership roles, and to growing business diversity in general. Certainly, much literature exists on the benefits of diversity to organisations, prompting many large companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft to invest in methods to overcome the effects of unconscious bias. It is a topic we must embrace as we strive to maintain competitiveness, and rid biases that are preventing a level playing field.

  1. Consideration for the bigger picture

Where are our role models? Among our leaking talent, we are not short of high caliber, experienced people. But we must get more effective at opening the door to them.

A recent discussion with the founder of a high growth start-up presents a pertinent example. A small job advertisement, posted in the community newspaper early in the company’s growth trajectory, attracted 180 applicants. The standout was a career mum – highly skilled, experienced, and a great fit for the role. Her 10-hours a week contract grew as the business grew. The award-winning company has now grown to five employees in under two years, most of whom work full time by flexible arrangement, and most of whom are career mums.

Importantly we must not further divide the career versus family debate. With career and education becoming increasingly important for women, there is a risk we will continue to see a rise in childlessness among educated women.

  1. Lead from the top

What impact could we have if every New Zealand business took one step forward today? We all have a role to play, but a proactive approach from business leaders is key to turning the tide. New Zealand has slipped far since its prowess of leading with its voting rights for women. But in a country of such low population, positive transformation has the potential to be far more rapid if a concerted, meaningful effort is made.

This article does not set out to criticise the choices made by women who have chosen to put their career ahead of raising a family, and neither is it about criticising parents whose children attend daycare fulltime. Rather, it is about drawing attention to the drivers of these choices, and asking the questions, “are we doing enough to support mothers in the workforce?” and, “what impact are these trends having on New Zealand’s future?”

It is ironic that New Zealand has long been regarded as a great place to raise your children. It’s about time we turn the dial on our dated views of what that looks like.



CareerMum exists to raise awareness and seek positive solutions to workplace challenges faced by career mums.

Share what your organisation is doing, or looking to do, to support women to resume and progress their careers following childbirth. Twitter: @CareerMumNZ.


[1] The method for collecting data was changed in 2014 to reflect actual attendance instead of hours enrolled; the latter was collected in years prior to 2014. The difference seen between 2000 and 2014 is therefore likely to be under-reported, as the change in data collection suggests the figures for 2000-2013 are inflated.

[2] Defined by Statistics New Zealand as, “A child in the household, aged 17 or under, who is not in full-time employment (if aged 15 or over)”

[3] Percentages for part-time employment are for the December 2012 quarter


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