Managing Maternity-related Gaps in your CV Part II: Upbeat ways to make caring work visible

When it comes to applying for jobs as a mother, there seems to be two approaches to explaining any gaps in your CV. The first approach is to maintain that ‘My personal life is none of their business’ and just not really deal with gaps at all, not mention your children or marital status or your partner’s work for the simple reason that men are not asked to. I totally get that approach. The second approach is to see your caring and maternity demands in an Equal Employment Opportunity context, and as needing to be highlighted so that your work is judged in accordance with the time you have had to do it (which can be many, many hours less that male colleagues, especially if you are breastfeeding overnight or have less than equal care arrangements). I have come to appreciate this approach more in recent times after talking to enlightened colleagues who have served on selection committees.  They want to know the details, not as an excuse to not hire you, but as a reason to rate your application more highly than your CV itself at first glance would merit.

While the ideal employee is often imagined as single and mobile, in smaller universities in New Zealand and Australia there is a concern that the upwardly mobile high achievers with the best PBRF-worthy CVs may in actual fact move on too quickly, and therefore not relieve the burden of teaching and administration duties that permanent staff shoulder.  There is some attraction then in candidates with families who may be perceived as more settled and committed for the long term (although I wonder if this is more so if the candidate is known to be the ‘primary breadwinner’ rather than a secondary income who may be expected to upsticks and follow another partner around and ‘not take their career seriously’). Whatever the case, there is something to be said for subtly highlighting your caring duties in such a way as to benefit your application (i.e., explain any gaps), but without appearing to be ‘whinging‘.

More broadly, I have come to appreciate a feminist stance where we consistently try to normalise the care work that all of us (should) do, not as a women’s issue but a human issue. I now try to take any opportunity to casually insert my care work and whole self into the workplace in order to normalise caring practices such as school pick up, sick relatives, breastfeeding, and so on, and I appreciate my many male colleagues who do the same. (Several of the male technicians in our department will send an email if they are unavailable with things like ‘sick leave: child with ear infection’, ‘annual leave: last week of school holidays’, ‘working from home: teacher only day’ and so on, or even have their kids with them as needed).

Leaving Clues in your CV
There is of course a difference between making care work more visible from the relative safety of a continuing contract covered by various family-friendly workplace policies and making your care work visible in the relatively risky situation of a job application. I agonised over this while applying for my current job, and not for the first time either. I generally stuck to two important strategies: leaving clues, and a direct brief address in a covering letter.

When it comes to leaving clues in my CV, I have done so through using my experiences as a mother to form a strand of my research. While not everyone can do this to the extent I have, we can all participate in forums or panels, write magazine type articles or opinion pieces based on our own experiences. I have three publications in my CV that directly relate to mothering, and would be a pretty big hint that I am a mother:

Farrelly, T., R. Stewart-Withers and K. Dombroski (2014) ‘Being There’: Mothering and absence/presence in the field. Sites. 11(2):25-54.
Dombroski, K. 2011. ‘Awkward engagements in mothering: Embodying and experimenting in Northwest China’ in M. Walks and N. McPherson (eds) An Anthropology of Mothering. Toronto: Demeter Press. pg 49-66.
Dombroski, K. 2011. ‘Embodying Research: Maternal bodies, fieldwork, and knowledge production in Northwest China’.Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies. 7(2): 19-29.

I also have items like:

Invited speaker for panel on Parenting and Academia, convened by Natascha Klocker and Danielle Drozdzewski. Institute of Australian Geographers Conference, Macquarie University. 2 July 2012.

Panel convenor, ‘Not Lone Wolf: a special session on mothers and development fieldwork’ convened by K Dombroski. Development Studies Network of Aotearoa New Zealand bieniennial conference. Auckland University. 2 Dec 2012.

These special sessions are easy enough to do — you just find a bunch of other mothers in the same situation and put together a panel proposal for a conference run by one of your professional associations or a disciplinary conference. Both these panels were well attended, and the latter one was even recorded for Masters students who had to present in another stream at the same time. It was also converted to the publication listed above (Farrelly et al.), which I contributed to only as third author and of course convenor of the original panel.  None of these publications are in particularly high class journals or publications, but they do two things: 1. make it obvious that you are a mother, and 2. make it obvious that you are using that as an opportunity for personal development and/or publications.

People from other lines of work might ask why we don’t just put our families in our CVs like is sometimes seen in non-academic CVs, but my feeling is that academic CVs are normally ‘evidence only’ CVs, with no listing of skills or chit chat or personal information beyond what is necessary for employment. See other websites on academic CVs to confirm!

Cover letters: A direct approach
I researched cover letters a lot and also gave my cover letters to people for feedback. People who had been on selection committees, to be precise. I agonised for a while about how to include my one mention of being a mum. My issue was I needed to give some indication of why it was seven years between PhD enrolment and graduation. It is clear from my CV that I was working fulltime for the last two years or so, but it is not clear why the earlier part took five years rather than three. In actual fact, my equivalent fulltime enrolment was bang on 4 years, if  you removed all the maternity leave and suspensions, and added up the years part-time. How do you draw attention to that issue in a positive, upbeat way? How do you draw attention to your achievements and the conditions under which they were achieved?

I practiced a few different sentences and eventually came up with this:

>”You try doing a PhD and having two babies while living on a mingy scholarship with a student husband.”

No, just kidding! It was actuallly this:

 “Although I have had two children during the course of my PhD studies, I have maintained my research productivity, even using these experiences as opportunities for research and publishing.”

This sentences highlights my achievements, as outline in my CV, and paints me as an adaptable and upbeat person. One person on the committee said they appreciated my positive approach (I am pretty sure this was necessary selection criteria in post-quake Christchurch!).

As it turned out, I got through to a phone interview. Around the same week, I found out I was pregnant.

Interviewing while pregnant
I didn’t mention I was pregnant for the phone interview, because it really was too early to know if the pregnancy would take, and I didn’t really know what my chances were for the job. I continued with my strategy of making care work visible, but in an upbeat and understated way — for example, mentioning I was interested in moving to NZ for family and lifestyle reasons. I put in a lot of preparation for my phone interview, going through a long list of possible questions I could be asked and drafting up short answers.

Then came the shortlisting, and I began to wonder at what stage I should let them know I am pregnant. I basically researched my situation in Australia (did I have maternity leave? yes! did I get it if my contract terminated before giving birth? yes! did I get it if I left my job before giving birth? surprisingly, yes!). It turned out I was in a relatively strong position financially due to the great maternity leave policies at Macquarie University. This meant I was in a strong negotiating position because the new job did not have to pay for maternity leave. All I needed from them was a delay in starting, and a fractional appointment for a short time.

Armed with this knowledge I began to think about how to broach the subject in a sensitive way that enhanced rather than detracted from me as an interviewee. ALOT of people advised that I simply not mention it until I was offered the job, because they were not allowed to ask me anyway. But I really wanted to control the way the information came out, and not be subject to surprised looks or accidental questions. Also, it was not a secret anywhere else, and as I said in the previous post, NZ and Australian geographers form a pretty small set.

So I went with something like the following:

“Just ringing to let you know that I am pregnant, due in November, but I am still wanting to interview for this job. I am just letting you know so you can contact your HR person and get up to date on all the policies for your university and we can discuss it further in the interview”
“Oh, congratulations.” [Stunned Silence] “Thanks for letting us know.”
“No worries, it is the third time round, so I have a pretty good idea of the timing for returning to work now. Just wanted to give you guys the opportunity to get up to date with your own policies. Did we confirm the interview date with the rest of the committee yet?”

Interviewing while pregnant (PS I didn't wear this dress!).
Interviewing while pregnant (PS I didn’t wear this dress!).

The idea was to :
-Make care work visible but not too visible
-Present as a confident and capable organiser of my work and by extension my family
-Assume they will not discriminate and communicate my confidence in the committee
-Research family friendly policies and communicate my knowledge and approval of them (committee may be unaware)
-My basic approach has been  “lighthearted and then leave it”, as in, mention the issue lightheartedly as if it is no big deal, then move on quickly to something else.  Although we all know it IS A BIG DEAL – actually for men too.

Negotiating around care work
I never mentioned pregnancy again, throughout the whole on-campus visit, until they asked about start date. I then confidently stated that in my experience I need at least 6 months maternity leave, and that this was provided already by my current job. So I was looking to start at X date part-time, then move up to full time by Y date.

When I was offered the job, I accepted on the condition that I could start a year later at 0.6 for one semester, then 1.0 after the first semester was finished. This was in the contract, and I requested 1.0 in the contract rather than my actual preference of 0.8 so that if we were in desperate financial straits I could go 1.0, but if things were not too bad, I could continue part-time for another year. I also negotiated access to the relocation funds earlier and a ‘visiting fellowship’, so I could move as soon as I went on maternity leave rather than waiting until the baby was born, and still have access to an office, library and so on.  Everyone was happy with this solution. After six months at 0.6, I requested to go to 0.8 rather than 1.0, for the next year.

When it comes to fractional appointments, there are two approaches I’ve noticed in Australia and New Zealand. The first approach is: “well, when I am fulltime (1.0) I am really doing 1.5, so I might as well just be paid for fulltime and take time out for family when I need to.” These mums have fulltime contracts, but you may still see them leave early, work from home, arrive late and generally keep rather irregular office hours. They will, however, be up late grading and preparing lectures and may very well email you at 2.30am on Sunday after putting the baby back to sleep. The second approach is to deliberately reduce your paid work to 0.8 or less (0.8 is four days full time) so that in promotions and workload allocation processes, there is some official paperwork requiring managers to consider your reduced workload (and pay). I know people doing both approaches, and in general there seems to be less bureaucratic problems with the second approach. You can request your classes to be timetabled on your childcare days for example, and this may be turned down if you are employed fulltime since you ‘should’ then always be available during ‘normal working hours’ (I think this is rubbish, since you often a) can’t get childcare for the full scope of ‘normal working hours’ and b) not many of us want our kids to be in childcare for the full scope of ‘normal working hours’ — it makes sense to work when they are asleep at home in bed. But it is what happens). The danger with a 0.8 fractional appointment is that it is so close to fulltime, you may get easily overloaded with work anyway and just not be paid for it. I cope with this by not coming in to the office one day per week, and not having any childcare on that day either (that is my husband’s working day). I HAVE to turn down all meetings for that day and I pretty much NEVER get a chance to check my email. Often it is all sorted by the time I return to work!

This is just one person’s story, and may or may not be helpful. However, I think it is important to make our care and work strategies visible to each other so we all know what is possible. Everyone who has a baby is unlikely to think it is easy to manage work and home, and that can work in your favour or also against you. The idea is to present as capable and under control, but aware of your needs and happy to negotiate for them. I don’t think I could have successfully negotiated in this area with my first child, but now with three I am able to say clearly and from the beginning what type of leave and appointment I require, and be clear (with myself) about how babies affect my work in terms of publications, travel and so on.  I hope these two posts have been helpful to others and I am interested in hearing others experiences in the comments.

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