How a phone call changed Julie McKay’s experience of inclusion while on parental leave | Women's Agenda

How a phone call changed Julie McKay’s experience of inclusion while on parental leave

Former UN Women Executive Director Julie McKay has recently started a new role at PwC after taking parental leave to have her first child. She shares how she was made to feel ‘included’ while away from work — and why flexibility is so fundamental. 

My 11 months of parental ‘leave’ have included a mix of baby time, consulting and advisory work, volunteer board responsibilities and time with wonderful friends and family.

Having had my toe in the water for a number of months, commencing my new role as Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at PwC this week, I have been giving a lot of thought to what makes an organisation genuinely inclusive and more likely to retain talent after a career break.  Despite having a supportive partner and employer, in recent weeks I have experienced the internal turmoil that I suspect many parents face, about how on earth I will manage to be the parent, partner and employee I want to be.

I am the first to acknowledge that focusing on supporting parents is not an adequate response to the need to make our organisations more diverse and inclusive to best enable the wide variety of people in today’s workforce. Too often ‘women with children’ become the focus of our flexible work policies and diversity strategies, when in fact, true diversity and inclusion impacts every employee, their families and their communities.

In saying that, pregnancy discrimination persists and that talent loss and low employee engagement around periods of parental leave remain challenges for most Australian businesses. The Australian Human Rights Commision’s Review into Supporting Working Parents found that 1 in 2 women experienced some form of discrimination either while pregnant or as they returned to work.

The Report found that 91% of mothers did not report the discrimination, but it did have an impact on their engagement and ultimately, their decision to stay in the organisation.   The cost of people not feeling included is real and needs to be addressed.

I distinctly remember my first corporate networking event post Isabel, which for this p-plater parent felt like a very big deal. The day before the event, the host of our table called me and said ‘Julie, I was just calling to check that you were on-track for tomorrow morning.  Do you need us to organise a cab-charge for you, or is parking easier so that you can leave quickly after the event?’  She went on to say that everyone at the table knew that I was on parental leave and coming to the event, so would understand if I was late, had to leave early, couldn’t make it at all or had to bring Isabel.

When I got off the phone, I nearly cried with relief.  Why? Because in this simple call, my colleague had given me permission to feel nervous, to fail if that is what the morning brought. But she had also made it possible for me to attend the event.  Instead of going to bed with four alarms set, nervous about what the night would hold with waking and feeding, what clothes would fit and whether I would be late or arrive with baby food down my sleeve, I felt different, calm.

That sense of calm, for me, was inclusion. The feeling that you get when your life and priorities are not seen as a burden or inconvenience to your colleagues, just part of your reality.  Imagine if we could make every employee feel like that when they approached their work each day!

I can’t tell you how much time I have spent in the last year feeling uncomfortable.  I think about whether what kind of life my baby Isabel will have, and I worry about her and whether I am making the most of my time with her in these early months. I worry about being late for appointments or for having a grumpy baby. I worry about missing emails, meetings and appointments all together. I don’t know whether the pram will fit at a café or meeting room and I feel like I am fighting a constant battle to keep up and stay engaged with my new reality, where I don’t have the available hours I used to.

I thought it would be useful to share some examples of what inclusion looks like.

Below are some simple steps that most organisations could take to support their people to reach their full potential, regardless of what life is throwing at them behind the scenes.

  1. The 3-step guide to an inclusive organisation is a myth.  Inclusion is a mindset that each of our leaders need in order to foster teams that are fundamentally considerate of different team members and the way that individuals work most effectively.  If someone has never felt excluded consciously, they are very unlikely to be able to understand the importance of inclusion or how to foster it.  Inclusive leadership training or coaching is something that all firms who are committed to diversity and inclusion should be investing in.
  2. People are individuals and need tailored support at different points in their careers
  3. Asking ‘what flexibility would you need to deliver these outcomes?’ will get far better results than having a flexible work policy and hoping employees use it. But if you are going to start asking that question, make sure your team are ready to lead and manage the dynamic once people are working flexibly.  Too often flexible work initiatives fail because the training has not been provided to leaders about how to build a sense of team and deliver outcomes in non-traditional work models.
  4. Leaders modelling flexible work gives permission for others to work flexibly. It is amazing how many leaders who are totally supportive of flexible work, fail to realise the power of the shadow they cast.
  5. Rather than assuming your clients won’t support flexibility and attempting to hide it from them, have the courageous conversations with clients about how your team works best to deliver the most innovative outcome for them. Most clients are facing the exact same challenges internally and will be grateful for your leadership.
  6. Don’t forget the little things. A call or email from the CEO welcoming new-starters and people returning from career break can have an enormous impact to someone’s confidence.  A planned induction process which is discussed with the individual and tailored where necessary in advance of starting means an individual knows what to expect when they walk in the door day one. A car-park on-site for parents returning from leave can give someone security for a couple of months that they can race home if their newly implemented care arrangements fall through. A senior sponsor with responsibility for supporting each individual will ease the transition back to work.

As you can see from the above list, inclusion and flexibility are inextricably linked.

In approaching my new role, the one thing I am sure of, is that when we feel safe and supported, we are at our best.  Creating this sense of inclusion for every individual can only be good for business.  Inclusion should not be the ‘wicked problem’ of our generation.  Leaders need to make time to understand what supports an employee might need to do their best work – this should be core business.  Each of us also have a role to play in making every individual in our workplace feel safe and supported – and as I discovered, it can be something as simple as a phone call the night before an event.

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