Sanjima DeZoysa, NCT’s Parent Content Manager, talks about the #WorkThatWorks campaign and how flexible working should be a reality for all parents who want it rather than the novelty for some.
Last Wednesday night, I found myself in a room full of savvy people at the Saatchi offices in Soho. Conversation flowed as drinks and canapés were served. But this wasn’t a cheeky mid-week night out; we had gathered together to hear about the latest research from Digital Mums.
A social enterprise with a big vision, Digital Mums wants every mum to achieve their perfect work/life balance – what they call ‘work that works’ (for all you tweeters - #WorkThatWorks). They recently released a new report which paints a damning picture of the current landscape for working mums.
It isn’t rosy…
The co-founders of Digital Mums, Nikki Cochrane and Kathryn Tyler, opened the evening’s panel discussion with sobering headline stats from the report. Currently 2.6 million mums are not working in the UK – and while for some this is a positive choice – for many it is the lack of flexible working arrangements that prevents them from returning to work.
Almost 68% of the stay-at-home mums (SAHMs) surveyed in the report said that they would go back to work if flexible working around childcare was an option.
The research also found that if both SAHMs and working mums were able to work more, that would equate to an additional 66 million hours worked each week in the UK. That’s a potential £62.5 billion boost to the economy.
… but it’s got to change
The themes debated by the formidable Digital Mums panel - which included Kate Thornton, TV presenter and journalist, and Anna Whitehouse, journalist and founder of media portal, Mother Pukka - resonated with me.
And as I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder*: a) could I pull off their eclectic on-trend outfits [no] and b) how is the current work environment for mums ever going to change? How can we make sure flexible working becomes a reality for everyone rather than the novelty for some?
For me, #WorkThatWorks is about enabling parents who want to return to work to do so in a way that suits them and their family – emotionally, practically and financially. But how do we get there?
[* Yes, I’m channelling Carrie Bradshaw. Yes, I’ve always wanted to write that.]
A culture shift
A recurring theme from the panel discussion was change - a change in how we work, a change in our perception of flexible working and a change in how we view people who want to work flexibly.
Holly Tucker, one of the panellists and co-founder of notonthehighstreet.com, summed up the dilemma when she asked: “How do we flip the culture?” And that’s today’s backdrop of ‘9-5, Monday to Friday, sat at your desk’ presenteeism.
Our Executive Director of Communications and Development, Sam Grimstone, addressed these very issues in a recent blog where she highlighted the fact that: “… archaic business attitudes remain embedded in the dark ages; one that values presence over performance.
“I have seen first-hand people who make assumptions about flexible workers, in particular mums. They believe flexible workers are not interested in training and development, aren’t fully committed to the organisation, or don’t have any career aspirations.”
Tackling these misconceptions needs seismic shifts in attitude. Women like the Digital Mums army are leading the way and demonstrating the tangible benefits of flexible working. Their experiences will encourage and empower other women.
It’s also important that women know what their employment rights are – from the start of pregnancy – so they feel confident and informed when having conversations about flexible working with their employer.
Hand in hand with this is faith in their skills, competence and contribution to their organisation. Whether you’re working five hours a week or 35, you are and should be treated as a valued member of staff.
Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) and one of the panellists, made this point clearly: “Know your worth”. Remember that £62.5 billion boost to economy? That’s not something to be sniffed at.
Employers must take the lead
The onus shouldn’t be on employees though. Employers must support and endorse flexible working too. For notonthehighstreet’s Holly, as an employer herself, a big part of this is leading by example. “People won't leave to pick up their kids on time, until you do,” she said.
And while women need to recognise (and shout about) their ‘worth’; employers must change their perception of women who want to work flexibly. “We need to value care,” argued WEP’s Sophie. “Women have children and when they want to look after them, they’re seen as unemployable.”
But what about all the skills you gain or you become better at because you’re a parent? Multi-tasking, empathy, understanding, team-work, patience, negotiation… It is a short-sighted employer that underestimates the value of parents in their organisation – however many hours they work.
We all have the right to request flexible working but it is down to individual employers to make that call. With better understanding of the benefits of flexible working comes a greater chance of requests being encouraged, accepted and celebrated.
The panellists made a lot of reference to Scandinavian countries and Holland where working flexibly is an accepted - and protected - part of the business culture. In the Netherlands, for instance, a woman’s right to cut back her hours is protected by law.
Another country light years ahead of us is Sweden which introduced cross-gender parental leave into law in 1974. Shared parental leave – the right that enables eligible mums, dads, partners and adopters to choose how to share time off work after their child is born or placed with them in the case of adoption - only made an appearance in the UK in 2014. A much-needed step in the right direction but a slow burner; WEP’s Sophie told us just 1% of eligible dads have taken up the right to SPL so far.
If we throw in the fact that the latest report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) revealed that 77% of working mums say they’ve had potentially discriminatory or negative experiences, there is definitely a need for legislation that will go further to support and protect employment rights for parents.
Stamping out pregnancy and maternity discrimination will continue to be a campaign area for NCT as we lobby government and employers to change practices.
Crazy cost of childcare
If you’re a working parent, you’ll know how extortionate the cost of childcare can be. There’s not a day that I’m not grateful for the childcare my parents and in-laws provide. For many women, it is the high cost of childcare which prohibits them from returning to work. How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t afford to go back to work because the childcare would cost too much”?
WEP’s Sophie got a well-deserved cheer when she said: “We need properly funded childcare in this country”. And that means affordable, good-quality childcare for everyone.
Not ground-breaking or impossible but something that would go far in enabling parents to return to work if they need or want to.
Flexible working for all
Did you know that when The Children and Families Act 2014 came into force one of the key changes was that flexible working was extended to all employees - not just those with caring responsibilities? And maybe that’s one of the stumbling blocks when it comes to the perception of flexible working. People generally think it’s something that just mums want and it can be perceived as ‘special treatment’ for parents.
Flexible working is for mums, dads and any employee – parent, carer or not. It gives everyone the chance to pursue other ambitions be that studying, a hobby or volunteering or simply the opportunity to find the work/life balance that suits them.
Daniele Fiandaca, a panellist from the Digital Mums event, who works at Token Man, an initiative which aims to give men a better understanding of challenges women face in business, stressed the importance of involving women AND men in the #WorkThatWorks movement.
And he’s right. I’m encouraged by the increasing number of dads I regularly see at the school gates. Flexible working is not just for mums; we all need to get behind the movement and start breaking the mould together.
Flexible work shouldn’t be about luck
I do work flexibly – three days in the office and one day from home. But I often find myself using the word lucky when I talk about work.
I’m lucky that I work for NCT, an organisation that supports me and many of my colleagues in working flexibly.
I’m lucky that my manager understands and doesn’t make me feel guilty if I need to come in a bit later because of a class assembly or I have to juggle a few days because one child is ill.
I’m lucky that my parents and in-laws help me with childcare so my entire salary is not spent on paying the childminder.
But luck should have nothing to do with it. Everyone who wants to should be able to work flexibly – and that needs to be supported by legislation, Government policy, business practice and culture.
I love my family. And I love my job. And I need to work for financial reasons. It is absolutely the ability to work flexibly that allows me to find the balance between all of this.
I feel happy and confident as a parent and as an employee with the work/life balance I have. When will #WorkThatWorks be a reality for all parents and not the novelty for some?