Susanne Erkens-Reck talks about eradicating social stereotypes in gender, parenting and the boardroom.

The day my husband and I shared the exciting news that we were starting a family was the day I realised society was not ready for shared parenthood.

Apart from receiving congratulatory messages on becoming a father, my husband was largely ignored. In sharp contrast, my motherhood was a huge topic for most people. They wanted a lot of information, such as how I planned to look after the baby and how I was going to do my job. It was a real eye-opener, considering that my husband and I were both fully committed to our careers and our future family.

I realised society has very different perceptions of what it means to be a father and a mother. This gender stereotyping extends beyond parenthood to every aspect of caring for loved ones, young and old. In some cases, it not only diminishes women, but men, too – by suggesting their incompetence as caregivers.

Society also stereotypes senior executives. Everyone has a life outside of work; it is an integral part of who we are. Yet society somehow expects senior executives to leave their personal lives at the door.

My husband and I were sobered to experience these two stereotypes  – gender and boardroom. For example, he would be queried about leaving work early to pick up his daughter: “So your wife cannot pick her up today?” While I was asked why I was working late: “Don’t you have to take care of your kids?”

We would all do well to be more mindful regarding our own unconscious biases about motherhood and parenthood. It is up to us all, whether male or female, to be supportive and respectful about the changes colleagues face and about their choices when they are starting a family. Our unconscious biases may keep us from doing enough to support fathers with their family needs or from ensuring that mothers receive the same opportunities in their careers. 

I really believe it is important for leaders to be good role models. The key is flexibility, whether with respect to colleagues or in a leadership capacity. If we want our colleagues to bring their energy, passion and creativity to work, Roche needs to be flexible about enabling everyone to care for their loved ones. We should give colleagues scope to make arrangements that allow them to be committed to both their professional and their private lives.

Parenthood is not the only responsibility that requires flexibility at work; caring for elderly relatives or a family member with an illness does, too, as do other commitments that are dear to people’s hearts. We should keep these factors in mind and remember to respect every individual’s choice in deciding how to deal with their personal situations.

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