‘Make flexible working the default’

Rebecca Bond left her job in the retail industry after her flexible working request – to reduce to four days a week – was turned down when she returned from maternity leave. She had reached area management level and has been unable to return to similarly paid employed work in the four years since. She now does two self employed jobs, one as a childminder and another as a freelance social media manager, having retrained through Digital Mums. Even with two jobs she reckons she earns around half her previous salary of nearly £30k a year and that she is working 25% more.

She has been told that if she goes digital marketing she will have to apply for junior positions despite her years of retail and marketing experience prior to having kids, which would mean returning to a salary of around £16-22k a year. She even applied for a social media management role at the employer before her last one and didn’t even get an interview, despite having held more senior roles since then; having worked for them in a comparative pay band role and being currently self employed in the exact same role.

She says she has been turned down for many jobs because very few businesses will consider remote workers and most are based too far from her home in Durham for office work to be possible. She worries too that being wholly office based would mean she would not have the flexibility she might need in the school holidays. She says: “One recruiter told me that they believed the business owner of the estate agency I was applying to wouldn’t employ someone who worked from home because he, like the recruiter herself, would want to keep an eye on their productivity!”

Rebecca is one of scores of people who responded to a call from Workingmums.co.uk for case studies in relation to our annual survey results.  Her experience is similar to the emails we receive every single day from women who have had their flexible working requests turned down and who have often had to be incredibly creative to find alternative ways of earning and using their skills.

Rebecca says she would like to see businesses being forced to offer flexible working unless they can prove it won’t work.

She says: “If it was mandatory then both parents would be able to split it between them. There is no justification for the vast majority of office workers to be denied this kind of working arrangement.”

Workingmums.co.uk’s annual survey of over 2,300 mums shows that 19% of mums have been forced to leave their jobs because they have not been granted flexible working. Nearly half of working mums think working flexibly has affected their ability to progress their career. This is mainly because they have been forced to take a demotion, change careers or have missed out on training or promotion. Almost three quarters identify flexible work as crucial to getting more women into senior roles.

On the other hand, 28% of women said working flexibly had not affected their career progression so the good news is that it is possible to have both. Workingmums.co.uk works with hundreds of employers who understand the mutual benefits of offering good quality flexible jobs and who promote a flexible work culture for all and is keen to promote good practice.

Slow progress

Things are changing, but for some the progress feels slow. Linda Northridge has seen it from both sides. She set up her HR consultancy after years of working in a large corporate. She was working there 14 years ago when she went on maternity leave and says she was very lucky to be able to return on a part-time basis. She was trying to negotiate flexible working and things weren’t going well until a senior manager intervened. He had a word and Linda was allowed to go back three days a week. Her maternity cover did two days. “It was almost a job share, but she did other things. It worked well and she got to step up,” says Linda. “If that hadn’t happened I would have had to take a career break and that would have impeded my career quite a lot. I would not have had the opportunities I now have.”

In her current HR role she works a lot with SMEs and says many are opposed to letting women come back from maternity leave and work less than full-time hours. Yet, she says, they rarely consider the costs of them leaving the organisation if there is no flexibility, including the cost of recruiting a replacement and training them up.

“The problem is that so many are male-dominated and they therefore look at working mums as a burden. They think women with children will take time off for sickness and holidays rather than looking at what they can bring to a business. I’ve had employers say they won’t employ women as they will get pregnant. It needs to be highlighted that women can bring a lot more to the workplace that they have brought before after they have had children.”

Generally, in her experience as an HR expert, Linda says many companies try to find ways around flexible working legislation and few see family as important. “They see flexibility as only for the mums rather than a two-way thing. They don’t get it. There’s a long way to go until people change their mindset,” she says.

She says that things are changing at the lower levels where couples are juggling things together, but she believes it will take longer to percolate up to senior levels. “I feel it’s a generation thing. Not until both parties get it will anything really change.”

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