What flexibility means to women in big and small business, COVID-19 and beyond

What flexibility means to women in big and small business, COVID-19 and beyond

We spoke to women in both large and small businesses about how they make it all work, and what businesses should be doing to support working mothers.

BY Business Chicks, 13 min READ

This interview is brought to you by our friends at Xero. Business Chicks have partnered with Xero to provide you with a host of informative and inspiring content on everything from tax and cash flow to mental health and wellbeing (and all that lies in between). All so you’ll be prepared to master the ins and outs of small business life – now, and into the future. For more, check out our Small Business Hub.

The Xero Boss Insights Report revealed that two thirds of Australian businesses launched in the last decade have been founded by women, and female leaders are rising through the ranks in companies and corporations like never before. We’re proud as punch about these stats, all the more so considering the fact that women in the workforce face a unique set of challenges.

So, from juggling time with loved ones to learning how to switch off, what does the f-word (flexibility) mean to women today? How are businesses large and small offering flexibility to employees to manage the responsibilities of work and home life? And what does it all look like in a post-COVID-19 world?

We checked in with two women at the top of their game to discover what flexibility means in both small and large business, and how we can build a culture where parents and those with caring responsibilities feel truly supported.

Melissa Westcott, Founder, Big on Shoes

Based in Moranbah, Central Queensland, Melissa Westcott is the Founder of Big On Shoes, the online and in-store home to shoes that actually fit, for ladies sized 5-15. Melissa’s work spans the sourcing and manufacturing of the Big on Shoes shoe label in Brazil and Spain, marketing, HR, and the day-to-day operations of the retail business. Melissa shared her experience of running a business and raising a family in a mining community, without the traditional support network of immediate family close by. You can find Melissa’s story in full on page 31 of Xero’s Boss Insights Report, designed to give you a better understanding of how to become your own boss (complete with the numbers you need to succeed).

How can we best support working mothers who run a small business (or working mothers who aspire to)? 

The one way I’ve felt the most supported throughout my business journey is by listening to others’ stories. I listen to podcasts (like Small Business Big Marketing with Tim Reid), read articles, connect via Facebook groups and business networking groups, and follow the personal accounts of other business owners.  Often, as a small business owner, you don’t have people to talk to about how hard it all is. And if you live regionally like I do, it’s even harder. Listening to  honest and real discussions with business owners from all walks of life has helped me to realise that I can do more than I ever thought possible.

How can we build a culture where working parents feel truly supported in business?

The key for me was accepting that I should never feel ashamed of my family coming first – sometimes, that might mean saying no to a meeting because of family commitments. Ultimately, I just ended up taking ownership of this, and in the various spaces that I work, it has been completely supported on every level. There are a lot of women who have walked before me and made this possible, and because of them, things are changing (and will continue to do so).

What does flexible working mean to you?  

My husband and I always laugh about this. Ever since we decided to take Big On Shoes to the next level (so that we could have flexibility), I have been working more than I ever would have in a traditional job. Pre-COVID-19, I was travelling all the time, and I am still juggling every day. But I think it is very, very important to remember that your version of flexibility is not the same as someone else’s. For us, it means being able to attend school events (even if it’s just for an hour), make it to Saturday sport, and ensure that there’s always one parent at home. Being a small business owner, I have the luxury of scheduling personal activities during traditional work hours.

What business lessons have you learned during COVID-19 that you’ll take on board for the future?

That if I go back to the basics of planning, working through that plan and re-adjusting where needed, I will be okay. And if I am not okay in the end, there is a big support network (that I had never acknowledged before) to catch me fall. I realised that people truly had my back, and I was making the right decisions to keep fighting.

I do a huge amount of travel for Big On Shoes, my board roles and also as a Facebook Community Trainer, so the COVID-19 travel restrictions were a huge adjustment. I’ve since realised that work travel is my downtime, and the relationships with my amazing travel partners have been put on hold. Most of the committees and groups I am part of are now less reliant on travel (preferring Zoom-a-thons!) which has added so many more days back into my week. I truly hope that post-COVID-19, we find a nice hybrid.

Vladka Kazda, Marketing Director, Xero

As Marketing Director for online accounting platform Xero, Vladka is responsible for Xero’s brand and go-to-market strategy in Australia. Her remit includes leading the marketing function’s operations, channel mix, analytics, automation and customer loyalty programs. Vladka shared her thoughts on flexibility as someone who balances a leadership position with raising a young family.

What do you see as some of the unique challenges that women (with or without children) in leadership positions face?

Regardless of gender, maintaining a leadership position is all about the art of the juggle. Part of this, of course, is learning to effectively switch off when you’re at home. The challenge that is perhaps unique to women, is the unrealistic expectations that we put on ourselves to be able to ‘do it all’, all of the time. Right now, with our place of rest and work suddenly becoming one and the same, that challenge is tougher than ever.

How can we support working mothers currently sitting in (or aspiring to sit in) leadership positions?

The key to enabling working mums to thrive lies in embracing flexibility and trusting them to deliver, regardless of the hours or location. After all, allowing flexibility is the ultimate show of trust.

Early in my career, it seemed that the ‘hard workers’ were defined by how late they stayed at the office (regardless of their effectiveness). Once I became a mother, staying late became an impossible ask. The first time I returned from maternity leave, I’d sneak out of the office at 5pm feeling like I was letting the team down. A few weeks in, I thought, hold up, what example am I setting as a leader? From that point on, I decided to unapologetically own my available hours. I haven’t looked back since, and my teams have followed my lead. It all comes down to normalising flexibility and providing psychological safety.

How can we build a culture where working mothers, parents and carers feel truly supported? 

The silver lining of our recent lockdown living conditions is that flexible working, from a technological standpoint, has been unlocked. Industries of all kinds are embracing cloud technology and portable devices to maintain productivity from anywhere at any time. The key to creating a truly flexible workplace, however, comes down to attitude. Leaders need to be genuine supporters. Behaviour such as tutting or rolling your eyes when someone requires extra flexibility undoes everything. Working parents should never have to choose between work and home.

What can businesses do to better support women re-entering the workforce after maternity leave? 

It’s really important that businesses create the opportunity for mothers to phase back into working life, allowing families the time to adjust and find a solution to their childcare needs. While they’re on maternity leave, conduct regular check ins and offer ‘keeping in contact days’ for those who want to remain involved in shaping direction (this could mean joining offsites and strategy planning days). One thing that I’m very passionate about is never skipping over a remuneration review while a team member is on maternity leave  – small increases missed can compound incredibly quickly, and this is exactly how the gender pay gap is created.

How does Xero embrace flexible working and what does it mean for you? 

I joined Xero just over one year ago, and a deciding factor was its genuine approach to flexibility. The example is set right at the top of the organisation, which is critical to building comfort and acceptance. Some examples of flexible working include senior leadership meetings starting at 9:30am to accommodate morning drop offs, senior leaders job sharing and remote meetings being part of the norm. Most importantly though, it’s about feeling comfortable bringing my whole self to work – and that means sharing the mama in me as well.


Xero is an online accounting software platform that’s committed to supporting small businesses with a range of free resources via their business continuity hub. Xero’s software is Single Touch Payroll ready, and designed to help you do business simply and beautifully. Nab a free 30-day trial over at xero.com.


©2020 Business Chicks

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