Flexible working: Dismiss the stigma
Staying at home is a choice for some mums, but for a larger number their hands are tied because of a lack of flexible working options. It's time to change the idea that mums need to choose between a rewarding career and motherhood.
HAVING IT ALL?
The old cliché of a torn or guilt-ridden mum isn’t remotely helpful when talking about work/family balance – we’re smart, realistic women, after all. But when our babies arrive, tricky decisions must be made about how we’ll spend our time at home or at work, be it in the short or long term. We are, of course, indebted to the generations of women before us who slogged their guts out, made sacrifices and paved the way for the opportunities that are ours for the grabbing. But as long as we are still wrestling over how our work can really, properly, actually, work for us, we’re not there in terms of ‘having it all’. What does that stupid, tired, old phrase even mean, anyway?
The #workthatworks report, by Digital Mums Ltd and the Centre for Economics and Business Research, shows that despite laws introduced by the government in 2014 to allow everyone the legal right to request flexible working, 60 per cent of UK working mums still don’t have access to flexible work. Kathryn Tyler, cofounder and co-CEO of Digital Mums, knows that staying at home is a choice for some mums, but believes that for a larger number their hands are tied because of a lack of these flexible options. ‘Women shouldn’t have to choose between a rewarding career and motherhood,’ she states.
Vlogger Anna Whitehouse says that ditching a rigid 9-5(ish) job to build her brand, Mother Pukka, wasn’t driven by the urge to gain a huge online following, but by the primal need to be there for her daughter Mae, now three. Like most of us, she desires interesting work on a flexible schedule that realistically fits with childcare, rather than screeching across town with a sweat on to make the 6pm nursery pick-up.
Anna’s previous job was shortsightedly inflexible but rather than suggest that we, too, go it alone (an equally tough route), she is garnering support for her #flexappeal campaign, demanding that businesses make the necessary shifts in attitude. ‘At the moment there are a lot of companies talking the talk around flexible working, but not delivering on their promises,’ she laments.
For both large and small businesses that do have a sound flexible working policy, the benefits are numerous. Healthcare communications agency Cuttsy and Cuttsy, winners of a workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award, knows that without offering a flexible environment to its workforce of 16 (which includes six mums, three dads and one mum-to-be), it would lose the valuable skills that make the business successful.
‘We work on trust and on completing tasks and projects, not on clockwatching,’ says co-founder Caroline Benson. ‘I believe that getting my work-life balance right sets a good example to the team, to my daughter, and makes me a better boss and mother.’
By attracting and retaining talent, and diversifying the workplace with flexible solutions, businesses could benefit from a total of 66 million hours more work per week, providing an annual boost of £62.5 billion to the UK economy, according to Digital Mums, which specialises in getting mums job-ready with the digital skills that are in demand for roles that tend to sync with family life.
Fired up by stats like these, and flanked by a #flexappeal crew of Lycra-wearing mamas, Mother Pukka’s Anna flash-mobbed Trafalgar Square to champion the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Working Forward campaign, and she says there’s plenty more of her flexi-foghorn action to come. ‘EHRC research showed that 84 per cent of businesses say they support flexible working, while 77 per cent of mothers have had a negative or discriminatory experience at work,’ she says. ‘A bit of basic maths shows that something’s not right. I’m not going to stop until every company has signed the pledge to implement flexible working practices on an individual basis. This isn’t a one-situation-fits-all approach, it’s about seeing people as individuals with unique needs – whether that’s caring for an elderly parent or raising a toddler. There’s no blanket approach to salaries, so this should be no different.’
So how can the mirage of flexitime, reduced hours, job-sharing, remote working or whatever flex you need, become your reality? Well, anyone can request flexible working, provided they’ve worked for their employer for 26 weeks. But be aware of the company culture – you may need to make a smart case to get it signed off.
ASKING FOR CHANGE
‘Be practical and thoughtful in your application for flexible working,’ say Alice Olins and Phanella Mayall Fine, career experts, mums, and authors of Step Up – Confidence, Success and Your Stellar Career in 10 Minutes a Day (£12.99, Vermilion). ‘Don’t just ask for what you want, but really think about how it works for the role that you have. How does it work for your team or your clients; ask yourself how things will happen when you’re not there. You might think in theory that you can log on at home for three hours every single evening, but is that realistic?’
Also, they advise, ‘Don’t be afraid of talking about your strengths – what you’ve brought in the past and what you’re prepared to bring in the future. We advocate doing this even before you go on maternity leave – so you really cement in your employer’s mind what you’ve achieved and why they need you. Rather than slowly winding down, make time to have a proper meeting with your boss. You’re then in a strong position when you come back to say, “Do you remember that conversation we had? I’m still bringing all of that, I just want to bring it in a little more flexibly now.”’
After the birth of her son Oscar, Phoebe returned to work as operations manager for a restaurant group, and had her request for flexible working granted after showing how she’d manage her days. ‘I’m totally on it at work, so I’m trusted to get the job done,’ she says. ‘I’m paid for three days but work 10am to 4pm, spread over four days, so that nursery runs are relaxed and I still get a lunch hour. A shorter working day means time to do boring errands before I’m at my desk, which eases the pressure of doing them all on my day off with Oscar.’
TACKLING ANY DOUBTS
But there’s more to an attractive flex pattern than a life-admin window, especially when most of our salary is servicing a huge childcare bill. Nobody should have to downgrade their skills or salary to do work that works for the family, yet a poll by workingmums.co.uk reveals 65 per cent of mums are less likely to ask for a pay rise if working flexibly. This indicates that flexi options are still viewed by mums as a generous bonus, rather than a mutually beneficial business decision. If mums are to make any headway in closing the gender pay gap, we need to negotiate on flexi options.
Alice and Phanella say that dips in confidence are common for returning mums, but can be overcome by reviewing what you achieved at work pre-baby and how you’ve added to these skills by becoming a mum. They urge you to dismiss any stigma of flex in your head and speak up for what you want and what you’re worth. Ask to be treated like anyone doing the same work, regardless of whether you’re doing a bit less of it, or at a different time. ‘The bonus is on companies to value the work without any kind of bias, but part of that responsibility is with us, too.’
Words: Ali Horsfall, Images: Vlogger Anna Whitehouse (Mother Pukka), #flexappeal Campaign