Are you contributing to a hostile environment for mothers?

Nicola Kemp: Are you contributing to a hostile environment for mothers?
Opinion: Career Leaders

Trying to succeed as a mother in the media industry is like trying to put a seatbelt on a swarm of bees. What are we going to do differently, asks Nicola Kemp.


“I love hiring working mothers because they are so grateful. I get far more out of them than full-time employees and pay them a lot less.”

Almost a decade has passed yet I can almost recall word-for-word a conversation with a publishing director on how much he ‘valued’ the contribution of working mothers to his business.

For such leaders, they could be squeezed dry and the work they performed was invisible only in the sense that a significant percentage of it was entirely unpaid.

Fast forward to 2023 and if I ask myself honestly what has changed for mothers in the media industry, the answer is not nearly enough.

All around me, women who have built careers in our industry are leaving them. For women in the messy middle of their media careers, the uncomfortable truth is that their salaries barely cover childcare costs.

My question to media leaders is simple: are you contributing to a hostile environment for mothers?

The mother of all myths

For the media industry, this question is business critical. For the steady stream of maternal talent exiting the industry brings with it a gaping commercial void.

According to data from Talk to Mums, mothers account for over 70% of all household spending, representing £205bn of the UK’s total economy. Yet all too often media plans are completely out of touch with the reality of our lives.

For those of us in the business of storytelling; it’s clear that we need to be telling a different story. Proof points matter. By contributing to a narrative in which women who work outside of the home and have children ‘drop out’ we uphold the myth that inequality is inevitable.

We must change the language of leadership. Follow the trail blazed by Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper, advocates of the career ‘squiggle’.

We must break the myth that women are automatically less creative or less ambitious after they have children.

Ask women on maternity leave to speak at conferences and judge awards on their keeping in touch days. Prioritise investment in coaching for returners. Stop stereotyping mothers and instead recognise, as Ali Hanan, CEO of Creative Equals says, that: ‘gaps are gifts’.

Women not supporting women

We must also address the gap between policy and progress.

From the small numbers of men taking up shared paternity leave, to the women who shared experiences of maternity discrimination with me, despite working for agencies that boast family-friendly policies in the press. Policy without practical application is tantamount to gaslighting employees.

Stories abound; from the publishing leader denying a flexible working request on the basis that ‘I couldn’t do it so why should you’ to the account director whose promotion plan vanished with her pregnancy announcement.

It’s vital to recognise that if we really want to break the cycle of toxic leadership, we need to address the elephant in the room: women not supporting women.

Boundary setting

Boundary setting is another important tool to support an overwhelmed workforce. Yet, as Jane Johnson, founder of Careering into Motherhood, explains: “Setting boundaries in the office is a risky move, in industries that have none”.

She believes that boundary setting is particularly challenging for mothers, who are rarely in the “privileged position of being able to divide your time into periods where you are only accountable for one thing.”

From those school WhatsApp groups pinging, to the mental load of meal planning, Johnson explains: “Boundary setting is a bit like trying to put a seatbelt on a bag of bees for most working mothers.”

Johnson believes that rather than generic statements, we need a fundamental rethink in the way jobs are designed.

“Life has completely changed since the 9-5, ‘bums on seats’ world of work was invented. It’s not just about redesigning things for working parents but for everyone so that work works with the way we live now.”

A shift which will also boost productivity and help address the challenge of staff morale.

Breaking the cycle

This focus on making collective change is far more inclusive than urging women to ‘lean in’ to systems built to exclude them. A narrative which contributed to a generation of women needing not just a lie down but choosing to leave. According to figures from the ONS, 43,000 women exited the workforce to look after family in 2021.

As the writer, Isabel Kaplan, recently explained: “The ability to bend an inch at a time while seeming to stand up straight is a useful and gendered skill. Most women I know do it regularly. They bend until they’re pretzeled and then blame themselves for the body aches.”

Mothers in our industry have not simply bent but snapped. We must do more to address the hostile environment facing mothers in the media industry.

Almost a decade has passed since I had to navigate my own aches. The sweaty-palmed rush to get to the nursery on time, pumping in a toilet cubicle, monstrous levels of sleep deprivation. All the while upholding the illusion that my life and my ambitions had not expanded beyond recognition.

Today as an industry we talk a good game on ‘bringing your whole self to work’. Yet at some companies, the uncomfortable truth remains for mothers that only applies if you leave your heart at the door.

By committing to building cultures where we don’t have to shrink ourselves to succeed, we can all find the space to grow.

Nicola Kemp has spent over two decades writing about diversity, equality and inclusion in the media. She is now editorial director of Creativebrief. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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