Rebecca Lewis
Jan 31, 2019

Working mums: Let’s talk about flex

Why should job-seeking women feel that they need to pretend they have no interest in having children? The strategic director at Mutant (and mom of two) argues that they shouldn't.

Rebecca Lewis
Rebecca Lewis

“Are you planning to have children?”

I’m willing to bet almost every woman of a certain age has been asked a form of this question in a job interview. It may not be as blatant as, “So are ya planning on getting knocked up?” but there are ways employers dance around the topic without landing directly on it.

Even though an illegal employment practice in many countries, including Singapore where I live, it’s something plenty of women can probably relate to. And yet, how many of us would feel comfortable asking a potential employer about their maternity packages? Most wouldn’t dream of it for fear of being ‘accused’ of wanting children someday. How dare they.

And even when you do have children, the guise continues for many of us. Amidst managing school holidays, childcare, sickness and toddlers who just refuse to put their bloody shoes on in the morning, the desire for a child is far easier than pretending your actual, real life tiny human doesn’t exist.

Instead, we stride into job interviews or go about our work with the air of a single, career-focused businesswoman whose ovaries are immune to any clock we might feel ticking inside. I have heard of women taking off wedding bands and blatantly lying about even having so much as a hint of a boyfriend, too.

I read somewhere that women often pretend they don’t have a job when at home and that they don’t have children when they’re at the office. This shame is completely misplaced, and—with two children of my own and working in full-time paid employment (I feel the need to clarify the ‘paid’ element here, because having children and staying at home with them is definitely, certainly also ‘work’)—I can see how destructive this mentality is to both career women and employers.

Thankfully, this is changing, slowly. According to the latest Conditions of Employment Report released by the Singapore MOM this month, the number of companies offering flexible working arrangements is growing—with 72% of workers saying their employers offer at least one type of arrangement, up from 70% in 2017. More employees are also being offered ad-hoc arrangements, up to 87% in 2018 from 81% the previous year.

And it’s 100% necessary, because—newsflash—while people still care about money, they care more about culture, experience and how they are treated in the workplace. This includes having options available that allows them to dictate the best way to manage their office and home life.

An example of this is here at Mutant. We offer the standard 12 to 16 weeks’ (paid), but then we provide a staggered approach to return to work. So, when I returned three months after my daughter was born, the first month I worked just 10 hours per week. The following month it was 20 hours, then 30, and then back up to 40+—all while on full pay. The goal here is retention, engagement and building loyalty. Suddenly ripping a mother away from her child and forcing her back to work eight hours a day is a shock to the system. It sucks, and it’s why so many new mums end up resigning. But this approach passes the power back to the employee.

Changing the way we think about work and judging staff on their ability to do good work (not on how well they sit in a chair until the boss leaves) is a win-win for employee and employer.

And it’s a mentality we carry over to flexible working for all our staff. For the first time in my life, I am able to make work fit into my life in a way that suits me. It means I can come in late, leave early, or work from home some days. It means I don’t feel guilty if I have to rush off for sick kids. It also means I am efficient, productive and squarely focused on getting my work done well, because the payoff is huge: I get the satisfaction of doing a good job at work and being present at home to do a good job as a mum. Basically, the dream.

Many employers will probably lump this flexi-shift in the ‘too hard’ basket, but changing the way we think about work and judging staff on their ability to do good work (not on how well they sit in a chair until the boss leaves) is a win-win for employee and employer. It means a happier team, lower costs and higher productivity.

And the change can start small. It can be as simple as employers openly and actively mentioning maternity and paternity benefits during the interview, in the same breath they discuss sick leave and vacation days.

It’s as basic as understanding that flexibility is a people issue, not just about ‘mums who want to see their kids more’. Flexibility is not just about parents, but being able to draw out the best results from every individual.

And until we understand this, people will continue to fail at juggling responsibilities, hide the fact they have children, feel they can’t ever stop and take a breath, and overwhelm themselves until they quit what is essentially a game they can’t win.


Rebecca Lewis is strategic director at Mutant Communications.

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