Workingmums.co.uk speaks to the founders of the Women’s Work Lab in Bristol which helps mums off benefits and into jobs that work for them.
Since it was set up in 2019, The Women’s Work Lab has helped over 150 women in the South West of England to get off benefits and back to work, despite all the problems Covid threw up. Its latest annual statistics shows all its 2021 graduates now feel confident about applying for a new job and returning to the workplace – up from 54% before the programme began – and 60% are now working while 20% are in further training.
That success has brought its founders a well-deserved place as finalists in everywoman’s Gaia Award category which is presented to the most inspirational female founder who has combined strong community benefit with a sustainable business model.
So how did the Lab get started? The founders, mums Rachel Mostyn and Camilla Rigby, were working in Bristol, Rachel for Digital Mums and as a freelance and Camilla in communications. They met through women’s networks and social media and arranged to have a coffee together and found that they had shared interests and a passion for social justice.
At the time Camilla was thinking of setting up a co-working space and Rachel was working from home. They talked about how they were privileged to be able to work flexibly as middle class women and therefore to keep working. They knew of the work of organisations like Women Returners which help female professionals get back to work after a career break, but they weren’t aware of anything that helped women on benefits who might not have the connections or financial support to retrain. They spoke to Bristol City Council and found that there was nothing specifically focused on helping mums on benefits back to work. The Council gave them some funding for their first programme in 2019.
Rachel and Camilla did extensive research in the local area, talking to mums who were out of work, especially those who had been long term unemployed. They did this via children’s centres and focus groups looking at the main barriers the mums faced. The three main ones were childcare, confidence and employability. Many did not have any idea of what they could do work wise as they had no recent work experience.
The nine-month programme Rachel and Camilla subsequently set up provides a lot of support and mentoring, but also, importantly, a peer support group – a community – which the mums can draw on to support each other. Flexible working was also key, with many of the mums having children with special educational needs.
Rachel and Camilla realised quickly that the support they offered needed to be face to face as one of the big confidence problems was around things like IT skills. They came up with a core programme which consists of four weeks of classroom-based work focused on women’s strengths and weaknesses, their personality preferences, their history and the barriers they face and how these can be overcome. After this comes a focus on specific employability skills, such as interview techniques. The Lab has teamed up with Smart Works to provide suitable interview clothes.
A short work placement follows which gives the women something current to put on their cvs. All work is term-time only and takes place in school hours as many of the mums have school-aged children. Then there are two weeks at the end on bread and butter issues such as cv writing. The women then have one to ones with a talent manager/career coach which is tailored to the individual and are matched up with a mentor for the next six months.
Rachel says the mentor is like a champion for the mums and is needed even if the mums get jobs. “Even when they are working they need support to manage every part of their lives,” she says. Aside from getting a job, a big challenge is whether the women can afford to work in certain jobs due to transport and/or childcare costs.
The first programme, with a cohort of 15 mums, was launched just five weeks before the first Covid lockdowns. The team had to pivot quickly to online, providing lots of video content rather than doing zoom sessions, although now, post-Covid, everyone is more comfortable with zoom. They also provided packages to help children with online learning and, says Rachel, became more like a support network during the early lockdowns.
Over the course of Covid, the programme expanded. It reached 60 mums in 2021 in Bristol and Bath and won backing from Bath and North East Somerset Council and the Department for Work and Pensions. This year the Lab has partnered with Bath College and has trained 90 mums in six cohorts of 15, covering a much wider area from Bristol and Bath to North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. A BBC documentary on one cohort in Weston-super-Mare is being broadcast later this month. Some of the programmes run concurrently in different areas.
The team is growing too: there are now eight people working for Women’s Lab, including two graduates of the programme who Rachel says are a vital component, grounding the programme in women’s lived experience. The Lab will take on another programme manager in the next year. Many of the women come through their strong referral network of schools, local charities, Job Centres and social media.
The programme also works with employers to offer work experience and now has over 50 employer partners, including schools, universities, corporate, housing associations and SMEs. The Lab only works with employers who match their values and often the mums get jobs through their placements, although the employers are not under any pressure to offer permanent jobs.
Rachel says employers get a good deal because the mums often want to stay in the job for a while and bring lots of maturity and life experience as well as a wealth of transferable skills. In part the programme helps to educate employers about the ‘hidden talent’ that exists on their doorstep if they just offered more flexible opportunities that they could do around their family responsibilities.
Rachel says she has always had a sense of waiting to support mums. “The fact that I had the opposite experience and went through life being really lucky with jobs that were very flexible made me want to support other mums,” she says. Rachel, who has a long-term disability, ankylosing spondylitis, is also a respite foster carer so she has seen the challenges and unfairness faced by many mums, especially when it comes to having the financial security to retrain.
Camilla had had a 15-year career in senior communications roles for household brands including Dyson and OVO Energy. She didn’t have an easy childhood and saw her own mum work hard to get the family out of debt. That means she is very aware of the challenges faced by the mums on the programme.
Camilla was also recently diagnosed with ADHD, which has helped her to understand the difficulties she faced at school and how she moved into the world of PR where quick turnarounds and constant turbulence are part of the job. She also has a son with special educational needs and is very aware of the practical as well as emotional impact that brings. She says she has learned, since her diagnosis, how to be kinder to herself.
Both she and Rachel support each other, just as the programme foregrounds peer support. Rachel adds that the fact that she and Camilla have a background in communications has helped them to set up the social enterprise like a start-up which is always trying to innovate. She says the organisation has been keen to build a strong foundation, with solid funding, including voluntary contributions from employer partners. Camilla says it is vital to get the foundations right before moving forward. The everywoman awards are a chance to look back and take stock of the progress the Lab has made as it seeks to expand further and wider.
Rachel states: “It was quite a shock to find out we were finalists. We’ve been doing it since 2019, but so much of it is lived in the moment. To be shortlisted for such a major award is a special moment to show how far we have come. It’s a bit of a wow moment.”
*Women’s Work Lab features in a BBC documentary here. The programme followed two mums through the Weston-super-Mare programme this year, and another mum who is now a WWL Programme Manager.