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"Now that we have a voice - we have to keep fighting for change": In conversation with Michelle Battersby

Missing Perspectives sat down with Michelle Battersby, founder of social media app 'Sunroom,' to discuss fertility anxiety, the challenges facing female founders, and what needs to change in the workplace.

CW: Discussion of infertility

Michelle Battersby is a very impressive woman. She's the co-founder & Chief Marketing Officer at Sunroom, an app for women and non-binary creators which prioritises their ability to make money off the content they so freely share, and the intimate audience connections they build.

It was born partially in response to the fact that other popular apps for content creation such as Instagram and TikTok can sometimes have a tendency to shadow-ban or limit the content of marginalised people, purely out of inane rules around algorithms and rules around appropriate content. The kind of 'rules' that mean seeing a photo of Kim Kardashian's naked form are fine, but seeing topless photos of Nyome Nicholas-Williams, a plus-sized model of colour, wasn't fine until she spearheaded a massive campaign for policy change.

Sunroom is all about empowering creators and giving them the means to have their content bring in at least a little financial support each month. It's a game changer and something Battersby is becoming well recognised for.

However, what she didn't imagine adding to her public profile was making HUGE waves last year after she went public with the anxiety, fears and emotions she felt around finding out she was pregnant. Here's the post that went viral:

Turns out, openly discussing fertility anxiety, fears around pregnancy discrimination, and the pressures facing millennial and Gen Z women resonated in a way Michelle did not expect - sparking a huge conversation on social media. It also brought a key issue to the forefront: women in the tech sector continue to face an impossible choice. We spoke with Michelle in order to unpack these issues and hear what she thinks needs to change in workplaces, something that our team feels deeply passionate about as we all contemplate if and where kids might fit in our futures someday.

How did you grapple with fertility anxiety, especially as someone leading a startup? Why do you think it's such an issue for millennials and Gen Z?

I think it’s important to recognise fertility anxiety is a deeply personal experience. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or what your profession is - it’s likely that at some point during your life, you’ve experienced it.

It doesn’t matter which way you’re leaning - be that ‘going against’ societal expectations and choosing childfree, trying to assess if you’re in a safe workplace that will support you through fertility and/or infertility, or working out if you’re with the right partner, or even want a partner involved - the societal expectations placed on women add to the pressures we all face. 

As a tech founder, some of the anxieties I’d experienced were related to the rhetoric that you ‘need to make enormous sacrifices’ for your business to succeed (or to be taken seriously). The founder struggle is a narrative that's widely celebrated in media, VC (venture capital), and pop culture. I think for women, that rhetoric can impact how we think and feel about starting families. The narratives I have been exposed to exist in different forms in other industries as well.

Many of us have bore witness to conversations where a woman was doubted because she’s a mum, a woman was overlooked for a pay rise because she was pregnant, or a woman never returned to work because she was made redundant whilst on parental leave. These are all experiences that lead to a sense of fear and anxiety regarding how having a baby might affect your career. 

Women have always had to fight to be treated fairly in the workplace. I think what’s changed is now we have social media so these conversations, previously in hushed whispers behind closed doors, are louder than ever before. 

Now that we have a voice - we have to keep fighting for change.

What are your thoughts on the saying 'there's never a good time to have a baby' - particularly when it comes to women working in the startup world? It's something my mother always told me - and has shaped my thinking.

I think that saying can mean different things in different contexts. It can also mean different things at different points in your life. If that saying is being used by family or friends as a way to convince or persuade you to do something you’re not entirely sure you want - then it's problematic. Starting a family is a life-changing decision and many factors come into play - including but not limited to: your partner, financial situation, location and living circumstances, extended physical and emotional support, your mental health, global warming, etc.

On the other hand, I did find myself saying ‘There’s never a right time’ as a way to reassure myself in the moments I found out I was pregnant. I understand this can be a triggering thing to say, and for anyone who’s experienced loss or infertility, I do not take my fortune for granted. But for me, this was not planned. I would not have chosen to fall pregnant at this time - however now it's here I've realised I was subconsciously denying myself an experience I deep down truly wanted. 

The journey so far has really pushed me to uncover my conditioning around pregnancy and raising children whilst working - it has forced me to address where my fears were stemming from, and if they were my original thoughts (or those of someone else). Ultimately I had to assess if this decision was going to impact my career as significantly as I had felt up until that point. 

What I came to realise is that as founders we’re actually in a tough but privileged position. These are our companies. We can make the rules. We can set an example for our team and normalise a culture that celebrates working mothers. We can bring our babies to work. We are in control of who we delegate to whilst we are giving birth. We can choose to take 3 months, 6 months, or no time off at all. This is just going to be another one of the hard things in life we are going to navigate and we will figure it out like the 2 billion mothers that have come before us. 

What have you heard from women in light of your posts and surveys? Why do you think your posts and story has sparked such a huge conversation?

I have been very open with my fears around starting a family and about my experiences that highlighted how many women are not in safe, supportive working environments. Whilst I can see my privilege in owning my own company, what I am not okay with is women being in less supportive circumstances than myself and denying themselves a life experience out of fear. 

I wanted to raise awareness that this isn’t just internalised fear or limiting beliefs, but that there are actually real women still losing their jobs in Australia because they fell pregnant. I’ve been inundated with stories from women who are being overlooked for promotions or pay rises, being given less meaningful work once they become a mother, not being offered flexible work arrangements upon their return, or being dismissed from the conversation altogether. 

Yes, there are laws in place to protect women from this - but unfortunately, they don't reflect the lived experiences of many people. That's not good enough. We should not be made to feel like it has to be one or the other (career/ baby) and that is the conversation I wanted to fuel. 

I asked two questions on my Instagram stories:

  • Do you feel like having a baby will jeopardise your career?

  • Did you or would you feel scared telling your employer you were pregnant?

86% of people answered yes to the first question.
68% of people answered yes to the second question. 

These statistics are incredibly alarming to me and also reflect my own experience where I’ve been told straight up - “it will harm your career.” I don’t believe it needs to. Things will change, but how we maintain careers (if we want to) should not be something we’re scared of.

Why do you think that women are still afraid to tell their employers/investors that they are pregnant? Why is it still a taboo?

This fear stems from what many of us have seen or heard throughout our lives. Many of us don’t know what the response will be from our colleagues and employers. I believe all women deserve to be in safe environments where they can enter conversations around starting a family knowing they will be celebrated and supported.

The companies that understand and prioritise that, will win the best talent and the ones that don’t will lose incredibly talented and skilled women. It’s also crucial for employers to understand that pregnancy is not a fundamental threat to productivity (mind-blowing, I know!). 

We also need to get to a place where this isn’t such a gendered debate. In Sweden, both parents are offered 240 days paid parental leave. 30% of parental leave takers are fathers. In Australia, only 12% are fathers. What we’re seeking is not some utopian land, it’s entirely possible. We just have to be brave enough to make the change and readjust the system.

Well if there's anyone we believe capable of making such change, it's Michelle Battersby.