A passion for getting people back to work

Diana Wolfin is passionate about getting mums back into the workplace. She has spent 20 years dedicating herself to giving them the kind of support they need and knows from her own personal experience what it is like trying to find a job after taking years out of work. She talks to Workingmums.co.uk about her work.

Diana Wolfin is passionate about getting mums back into the workplace. She has spent 20 years dedicating herself to giving them the kind of support they need and knows from her own personal experience what it is like trying to find a job after taking years out of work.

Fortunately, things have got easier since she started out, but her pioneering work has played a role in this. She’s still fired up, though, and wants to help a new generation of working mums.

Diana took 20 years out to bring up her four children. “I had them in quick succession before I was 30 which I had planned,” she says. “It was very different in those days.” Her eldest daughter is now 39 and herself combining motherhood and a career. “There was no flexible working in the 1970s, except if you were working at Tesco or for pin money. I made a conscious decision to stay at home,” says Diana. “All my friends were graduates, but almost all of them were stay-at-home mothers.”

Her background was in teaching. She had a degree in French and German and did a bit of language coaching for children and some translating for a Swiss-based agency when her first child was born and while she was sleeping. When her next daughter was born she couldn’t carry on. There were no playgroups at the time. “Nurseries wouldn’t accept children in nappies, but by the time my eldest was three my second daughter was one,” she says. There was a three-year gap between her second and third child, a boy. She says having three children meant learning a whole different parenting strategy. “That’s why I think women have so many transferable skills for the workplace. They are so good at adapting to the different needs of their children.”

When her children were 11, 13, 16 and 18 she decided to go back to work. She considered teaching French, but felt schools had changed and education was more about crowd control. Plus she had teens at home. “I believed I had nothing to offer,” she says. She had done a lot of voluntary work organising events and fundraising.

Back to work
She got a job at the University of Westminster doing administration for courses for women going back to work. Typically, on her first week back at work all four children came down with the chicken pox. Initially, she worked two days a week, but as her children got older she increased this to four days a week and she said there was a lot of flexibility. “It was a huge learning curve because when I started I literally didn’t know how to turn the computer on,” she says. She did a course called Professional Updating for Women to help her with her computer skills. “I found out I could adapt quickly to new situations and that that is an important life skill.”

In the beginning, she just did administrative work, but she was then asked to teach a module on the Professional Updating for Women course and moved into teaching “almost accidentally”. She really enjoyed the work. “It was so fantastic to see women who believed they had nothing to offer the workplace have their eyes opened,” she said, adding that most of it was about building up their confidence.

The courses were funded by the European Social Fund until 2000. Diana wanted to continue her work so she set up a small training consultancy, Changing Direction, which ran courses for women returners in the North London and Middlesex area. It was hard running her own business and involved long hours. “I could often be sitting at the computer at midnight,” she says, “and I made a few mistakes.” The courses were successful, but Diana says it was not a viable business on its own as the women did not have money.

She decided to write a book for women returners. “There was very little around at the time,” she says. One of her colleagues who had been a student at the University of Westminster said she thought there was a market.

The guide covers all the transferable skills mums have and issues like childcare and gives advice on everything to do with returning to work after a career break, such as how to pace yourself. Diana says in each case women have to weigh up whether it is worth the cost in terms of childcare of going back to work, whether it is so expensive as to prove prohibitive or whether you want to stay in work as a springboard to a more substantial career later.

“I’m very proud of the book. I burst into tears when I first saw it in 2003,” she says, adding that she is looking at the possibility of reprinting it with a major update to the resources section.

The book, Back to Work: a guide for women returners, was way ahead of all the batch of guides now out and a forerunner of what Diana calls “the massive explosion” in books on work life balance. At the time, publishers did not see a market for it. “They thought it was too much of a niche,” she says. “But I have always thought there was a role for meaningful jobs done on a flexible basis. It’s amazing how much progress we have made with technology in such a short time. Women now expect all of these things.”

Recently she has been teaching a course for people who have been made redundant at Barnet College after she contacted them in relation to a course they had funding for for women going back to work. “I said I would teach a course for women returners for one term to see if it was popular and nine years later I was still at the College, although the focus shifted in 2008 to people who had been made redundant,” she says. “Many were women and many of the same issues around confidence applied.”

Ironically, given the growing numbers of women being made redundant, the funding has just been cut despite Barnet College being among the top performers in the Forward 4 Work programme for getting people into jobs. Diana says she was in Marks & Spencer recently and a woman came over and kissed her. She had got a job in M & S after doing Diana’s course. “It might not have been what she ultimately wanted, but it was a stepping stone to have something to put on her cv, something that paid her regularly,” says Diana.

She keeps in touch with many people who have done her courses and finds it very frustrating that there is not more on offer for women returners. She hopes other colleges or organisations will take up the baton. “I know how difficult it is to do it on your own,” she says.

For more information or to contact Diana, click here.

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