Navigating the return to work juggle: Embracing flexibility, confidence and leadership 

Bonnie Dodemaide
By Bonnie Dodemaide | 8 March 2024
Bonnie Dodemaide.

Bonnie Dodemaide, Digital Performance Lead for iProspect, a dentsu company  

Twenty months ago, I gave birth to my beautiful daughter. Eight months ago, I was hit with the realisation that parental leave had put my career on hold. 

My career comprises of over 10 years’ experience in the industry, with a background of digital expertise and client leadership. It was a shock to the system to go from the fast-paced media world to parenthood!  

After a catch up with some colleagues during my parental leave, the chatter of Generative AI and ChatGPT rattled me. During my leave I had not given a second of thought to either. It was a light bulb moment.  

On realising, I was missing out on industry shifts; I was not across the trends as I had been before. I was losing touch with the industry. 

Holding my baby, I thought: “How will I ever catch up when I return and how will I find that place again where I am confident to be that expert voice for our clients? How will I balance this with enjoying every milestone my daughter goes through and not missing a moment?”   

As my daughter turned one, I prepared to return to work, starting with three days a week. It was overwhelming in a way that I had never imagined.  

It felt like the work landscape, once so familiar, had suddenly changed, a mountain had appeared where there used to be a grassy knoll, and it felt like an obstacle I was not sure I could climb. 

There were fresh faces, names I was struggling to remember. I had limited time. I was playing catch up. And the parent guilt was overwhelming.  

The extra mental load of taking care of another human is something we shouldn’t dismiss. Day care drop off, pick up, meal prep, time together as my daughter learned about the world. 

It all meant I was suddenly less available to pick up extra work and log on when I had an idea. I had never not been available before. New boundaries had to be established. 

That is why this year’s International Women’s Day theme is important to me: Count Her In: Invest in Women. Accelerate Progress.  

We need our workplaces to support women in their journey back to work. It is vital to have initiatives in place to help women (and people) get back on track after taking parental leave, or any leave for that matter.  

While ChatGPT and Generative AI had become the hot topics while I was in my family bubble, the metaverse was the next big thing back in 2022.  

It felt same-same but different. So very different. A lot can change in a month, let alone a year.  

For me, it wasn’t just enough to catch up. I am a leader in this industry and an expert my clients rely on. Therefore, it was important to regain my footing and confidence in the industry. 

This meant that when I was asked to be part of a panel discussion on Generative AI at a Microsoft event in Melbourne, I didn’t say no I challenged myself, took the opportunity and leant on my work support network to ensure I could be the best version of myself and do my daughter proud (even though one day she’ll be scoffing that we were so perplexed by Generative AI). 

Returning to work has been overwhelming.  

But the work I did as part of the dentsu Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Council with my colleagues Nisha Rajamani (Client Partner at Carat) and Danni Wright (CSO at Carat) back in 2021 was vital. We launched a new initiative, a primary carer coaching program – aimed at supporting and mentoring primary carers working for dentsu in returning to work and helping kickstart their career again. To ensure that women did not fall behind in their career progression and that we could increase the number of women in leadership positions.  

This initiative was a gamechanger for me. Now having experienced the program as a mum returning to the workplace, I know how valuable it was for my confidence, my focus and how it helped me re-establish my leadership in my workplace. 

The other initiative that has helped me as I have learned to juggle my commitments and needs as a parent with my ambitions to be the absolute best, I can be in my career is flexible work. 

This does not simply mean the ability to work from home but rather the opportunity to return to work in a part time capacity and flexible hours so I can drop off and pick up my daughter from day care as I need.  

Flexible work is not just a benefit for mums, or even just for women. It is a key part of supporting work-life balance for all people, important for those who are doing some extra study to upskill or those of us needing to get a workout in before coming into the office, to balance mental and physical health or colleagues who might be caring for an elderly parent. 

Flexible work is something agencies are starting to prioritise, as are other programs and initiatives designed to retain women in the workplace after they take a career break. 

But if we look at the recently released Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s Employer Census for 2022-23, the picture the stats create suggests more needs to be done. 

Only 22% of CEOs are women, 42% of managers are women and 30% of women work part-time. Of those part time workers 7% are in management roles, suggesting that there is still a glass ceiling when it comes to attitudes around part-time workers being viewed as real, viable options for management and leadership positions. 

The big challenge for the media and advertising industry is to start to actively interrogate how we can make job sharing and part time positions work more effectively to keep people in this industry. How do we train leadership to support people that would benefit from a job share or part time position and how do we create a workplace where we can have conversations around how that affects the broader team? 

But this is not just up to us on the agency side.  

It is integral that our partners and clients join us on this journey as being able to work flexibly means more parents are retained and return to the industry; we can attract a broader range of people to our wonderful industry and not lose them if life throws a mountain in their way.  

I have been back at work for eight months now, integrating my work identity back into the person I have become, following the birth of my daughter. It is as though I am constructing the new Bonnie, and it is something I do have to focus on – an iterative experience, and like the metaverse and AI, this too will change as my daughter grows up and my ambitions at work continue to evolve. 

I must remember to not sell myself short. Businesses should invest in women, in parents and in people. Do not count us out. Invest in Women and Accelerate progress for all.  

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