Supporting working parents

Family of 4, 2 kids on their parents shoulders


Support for working parents needs to be tailored to their individual circumstances and what they want from their work and family life. That’s according to Virginia Herlihy, founder of How Do You Do It?, an award-winning organisation that delivers in-house programmes to help employers support working parents.

She says there is no “silver bullet” for work life balance. “Each parent has a different view of what success looks like. They have a unique footprint, but they face a lot of judgement from other people. Unless parents are clear about what is important for them they can feel guilty and swayed by others’ opinions. That is where the problem lies,” says Virginia. “That is why it is vital that our first step is to ensure they were clear about what they value, what their bottom line is, what is important for them for home and for work. It’s about making choices about what is right for them.”

How Do You Do It? offers support to businesses and managers as well as individual parents and recently won the Working Families’ Best for All Stages of Motherhood.

Virginia first set up the organisation in Australia 10 years ago. She is British and says she had always wanted to have a business in the UK too. She felt the situation for working parents in Australia was similar to that in the UK so she did some research and spoke to a number of large employers and working parents in the UK. “The challenges they described were exactly the same as those my clients had in Australia,” she says.

Virginia says that, as in the UK, there is a growing focus in Australia on the links between workplace equality and equality in the home which is driving employers to improve what they offer to both mums and dads. She cites the work of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency who seek to improve standards through their benchmarking work on best practice. In recent months, they have focused more on how managers are trained in supporting working parents.

“Bodies like that encourage organisations to be more thorough and to report what they are doing more and what impact that has,” says Virginia. Another driver of the equality agenda in Australia has been Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, and her promotion of the UN’s male champions of change initiative in the workplace. The initiative is about male managers in the workplace coming together to achieve change on gender equality.

Minimising guilt

How Do You Do It? works has worked with thousands of parents as well as many employers since it started. It does so through group work as that builds an ongoing network of support. Debs Ingham, a coach at How Do You Do It? and UK Business leader, says that what comes up often in sessions with working mums is guilt. The organisation aims to minimise that feeling by helping mums feel comfortable with the choices they have made and reminding them of why they work. Women tend to focus on the things they are not doing and feel bad, she adds, rather than on what they are doing well.

Men on the other hand talk more about stress and conflict than guilt. They want greater flexibility so they can contribute more at home, says Virginia, but they face stigma in asking for that and they have few role models to encourage them. “There are strong views on what men are supposed to do. What makes a difference is male champions of change, when male leaders send clear messages out about flexible working, for instance.”

She adds that men can sometimes be reluctant to come to parent support groups. What can work better, she says, are fact finding sessions where dads get together to talk about their experiences and share what works and what doesn’t.

The business case

How Do You Do It? also works with employers to put the business case for supporting working families. Debs says there are clear measures that show that support pays dividends, including improved retention rates. She adds that employers who get the business case tend to be those who place a high value on the people they employ.

The organisation also works with managers to investigate what they could do to better support parents, for instance, how they can identify where the pinch points might be for parents or how they can use KIT days better. “It’s about recognising that support is to do with creating an ongoing conversation,” says Virginia.

How Do You Do It?’s plans for the future include developing its online capabilities to be able to offer parents more flexible advice sessions and broadening its client base, including potentially moving into other countries.

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