Re-birthing new life to leadership
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New research from University of Auckland PhD Candidate, Amanda Sterling, reveals opportunities to increase the representation of women in leadership by supporting the lived experiences of mothers. In her thesis entitled ‘Re-birthing new life to leadership’ Amanda explores the limitations mothers in leadership face and the leadership potential in authentic vulnerability and connection.
Women are underrepresented in leadership and while some areas have improved these shifts are not enough to make a significant impact. Equitable opportunities remain an issue for women in leadership and, according to the UN Women (2023), it will take another 300 years to achieve gender equality at the current state of progress.
We need to explore other ways of increasing the representation of women in leadership. My PhD research on Motherhood and Leadership was conceived as a way to do this by highlighting problematic ‘white male’ and ‘childless female’ ideas of leadership; revealing the potential in greater attention to embodied experiences; and exploring opportunities to 're-birth' new life to leadership for the greater inclusion of mothers, women and anyone else who doesn’t fit normative ideas.
I chose to focus my research on experiences of mothers because my review of the existing literature revealed motherhood as one of the main reasons women struggle to stay in the workforce let alone progress their careers into leadership. Examples of the dynamics at play here include historic ‘natural’ expectations of gender roles; work dynamics that make it difficult to incorporate embodied experiences (e.g. pregnancy, birth recovery, breastfeeding and care of young children) with paid employment; and, entrenched assumptions about the commitment of part-time or flexible workers.
However, despite there being considerable research done on the experiences of mothers in paid employment, there exists little research that explores the experiences of mothers within leadership. The research that does speak to this tends to constrain mothers in leadership to her gender role, for example emphasising care-giving as a leadership trait (see Lumby and Azaola, 2014); or points to the gendered misogyny directed at female leaders when they become mothers. For example, the commentary levelled at NZ’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when she announced her pregnancy in that “I just do not think women should be in such power if they are birthing babies” (p.1702, Delaney and Sullivan, 2021).
In a world first piece of research I explored the lived experiences of mothers in leadership by conducting focus groups with 48 women from some of New Zealand’s largest corporates, most innovative start-ups, and community connected organisations to explore how the lived experiences of motherhood (as far outside the norms of what we might consider leadership) could challenge and change ideas and enactments of leadership.
What I found was that the embodied experiences of mothers (where they are actively engaged in growing, birthing, and feeding children) were critical to both the leadership limitations women experience as well as potential sites for emancipatory expressions of leadership. There were three main threads that my research contributes to leadership scholarship and practice here:
- Firstly, it highlights the greater physical, emotional and mental labours that mothers must engage in when their embodied experiences are not recognised and supported within their leadership identity and practice.
- Secondly, it reveals the potential in paying greater attention to embodied experiences as a way to acknowledge and push past the norms and enact more inclusive expressions of leadership.
- Thirdly, the vulnerabilities associated with embodied experiences of motherhood enable more authentically empowered and connected forms of leadership, as participants described greater connection to themselves, and who they were as leaders, their families, their cultures and communities, and the people they led, when their experiences were explicitly supported in their leadership roles.
My research has implications for leadership practice because if embodied experiences are ignored within leadership development and action they can undermine the inclusion of women. However, support for embodied experiences could rebirth new life to leadership for greater inclusion.
A more detailed report of the insights and findings from my research will be available in the next few months. I have also been developing practical ways for organisations to: have these conversations; explore contextual challenges and recommendations; equip their leadership teams; and, support the lived experiences of mothers. If you’d like to receive a copy of this report or have a conversation with me about these practical actions you can contact me here.
Delaney, H., & Sullivan, K. R. (2021). The political is personal: Postfeminism and the construction of the ideal working mother. Gender, Work & Organization, 28(4), 1697–1710. https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12702
Lumby, J., & Azaola, M. C. (2014). Women principals in South Africa: Gender, mothering and leadership. British Educational Research Journal, 40(1), 30–44. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3028
UN Women (2023, March 7). Facts and figures: Women’s leadership and political participation. Retrieved 15th March 2023 from, https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/facts-and-figures