Becoming a mother in PR land is like getting a face tattoo

I want to have children, but will it set my career back? This is the question Lisa Portolan says she (and other colleagues and friends) grappled with as she considered stepping back from the PR world to become a mother.

In her memoir ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, Elizabeth Gilbert’s friend tells her, “Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit”. Most parents would agree with this, but, realistically, only realise it after the birth of a child. Before that, parenthood is imagined but unknown. At least, that was my experience.

I was concerned about the impact on my career. I’d spent close to ten years working in government communications and had been a departmental director for some time, primed for my next step as a branch head. What would six months off look like? Would I be overlooked for promotions if I returned as a part-time staff member? Would I even want to go back?

My partner, conversely, wasn’t riddled with such questions. He was looking at a relatively uncomplicated two weeks of paternity leave and a full return to work.

The reality for me, and most women in the workforce facing a career break, is quite different. Yes, we’ve come a long way from an equal rights and representation perspective: Nearly a third (29.7%) of directors in ASX200 businesses are women. Women comprised nearly half (45.4%) of new appointments to ASX200 boards in 2018. Women constitute 37% of all full-time employees and 68.5% of all part-time employees.

There is a still a long way to go, however. The gender pay gap stands at around 14%, and women hold only 13.7% of chair positions, and represent 17.1% of CEOs.

However we look at it, there is a biological truth: women have to take time out of the workforce to bear children cannot be avoided, and nor should it. We carry our children for nine months, give birth, and are intrinsically linked to them.

It really is a lot like getting a face tattoo.

And many colleagues and friends feel the same. The crux of it: I want to have children, but will this set my career back?

The answers are never clear-cut and aren’t the same for everyone. I returned to my career in government after I had a daughter – but I had changed irrevocably. I surprised myself by becoming more of a risk-taker. Having a tiny person in my care inspired me to lead by example. I needed to be brave and follow my dreams.

I joined N2N Communications as a group account director in November 2017 and moved back to Sydney. My daughter was two at the time.

There is so much commentary about how it’s utterly impossible to balance being a mother with the world of PR, or life as a consultant. The long hours and the rigour required seemed at odds with motherhood. But I didn’t find that to be the case. Working with clients to solve complex issues energised me. Working in a dynamic and fearless agency inspired me.

I’m still at N2N Communications and have led some of the most exciting and issues-rich campaigns. Since my move to Sydney, I’ve released my second novel, Happy As, and continued my PhD at Western Sydney University. And I’m working alongside some of the most inspirational parents I know – including our CEO, Vanessa Liell, and MD, Skye Lambley. N2N Communications is part Publicis Groupe, which recently rolled out an industry-leading parental leave policy – essential to retaining women and encouraging career longevity.

As a parent, there are many voices telling you how things should be. Including the impact motherhood will have on your career, particularly in a fast-paced arena like PR. But cutting through are other voices, telling you to be communications trail-blazers and rule-breakers. This is an industry that celebrates ‘disrupters’ – or so we tell ourselves and our clients.

What if we started acting in line with that?

What if we empowered women to write their own narrative, and break social norms?

Encouraging more women, and parents generally, to write their own story should be an industry norm.

We need to allow individuals to carve out a career which suits them (and doesn’t necessarily have a vertical direction).

And we need to acknowledge that women having children is part of the workplace fabric.

Lisa Portolan is a group account director at N2N Communications



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