Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

I’m not your mum

I turn 50 in six months’ time. It’s exciting, and a great excuse for a party, but I don’t expect anything much to change with this milestone.

I’ve worked in technology for nearly 30 years. Starting out as a front-end developer, I worked in technical communication for a long time, before moving into business analysis and project management, and am now leading a small team of passionate and talented software engineers. I’ve worked in many different kinds of offices and in teams of all sizes. Being a woman in this industry has had its fair share of challenges over the years, but now that I’m one of the oldest people in any office, there’s an additional problem I face on a regular basis: people keep referring to me as the “mum”.

No. So much no.

Well, yes, I am a mother. I have two adult kids, and another who will turn 18 around about the same time I reach my half century. And there’s no doubt that’s a huge part of my life experience and has influenced who I am — and the way I work. But framing me as the team (or office) mum demeans me and the people I work alongside.

Why does it happen? I reckon there are a few reasons… I’m organised and I like to organise others. I try to provide positive motivation and psychological safety for the people on my teams. I work hard at becoming a better active listener. When you combine behaviours like those with my age and gender, everything magically aligns into a dominant cultural archetype of MOTHER.

Mostly, it’s meant as a compliment. And said with affection. (Which makes it harder to confront, because part of my brain is thinking “aww… they LIKE me!”) Very occasionally it’s quite obviously used to belittle me. But either way, it immediately limits the recognition I get for doing my job well. When my male peers show the same behaviours in leadership roles, they’re recognised as empathetic, nurturing managers — even when they’re about the same age as me, and also have kids at home. But I’m a “mum”.

It’s not fair on my teams either. They aren’t children. They don’t need (or want, or get) parenting from me. Also, by lumping some of the things I do into the “mum” package (like remembering birthdays, checking up on what’s happening in their lives outside the office, and celebrating individual achievements in the workplace), their opportunities to add value to the team in similar ways are limited. “Oh there’s no need… that’s the team mum’s job.”

So the next time you’re talking to — or about — a woman in your workplace, think about how you’re seeing her role in your team and company. Don’t limit her potential to move forward in her career by mislabelling her skills and talents.

And tidy your room.