Benedetta Doro explores the impact of flexible job options for mothers on their career progression and their outlook on the post-pandemic working environment.
The annual WorkingMums survey of over 1,300 mums showed how women are becoming more confident about demanding flexible job opportunities and turning down roles that are not flexible enough. Over half (53%) of the respondents said they had turned down a job for that reason.
And, despite the fact that 22% of the survey’s respondents had had flexible working requests turned down in the past, with 41% of those who had been denied flexible working leaving as a result, there is optimism that Covid could bring more flexible new jobs on the market.
Donna Rickaby is one of those working mothers whose way of working has changed post-Covid-19. She now works from home with a day or two in the office, but, before lockdown, she worked full time in the office with one day working from home and “at least one day out and about”.
Rickaby has officially been a manager for the last 10 years and the next step would be to become a director, but Covid has made her reconsider the impact on her family time and health.
Rickaby worked fewer hours when her children were younger. The survey shows nearly half of the women in the survey work part time. However, this often means taking steps back in their career as not many jobs at higher positions offer that option or other flexible benefits.
Indeed, there is still a stigma around flexible jobs. Some employers still perceive flexible workers as not being as committed to the job, when in reality it often means juggling work and other responsibilities simultaneously and working extra hard to repay their employers for allowing them to work in this way.
“When the children were younger, I worked less hours and I didn’t do any extra ones in the office, which in the past I would have done. I did, however, put in the extra time at home when the kids were in bed or when they were at activities at the weekends to compensate,” says Rickaby.
Lucy Rahaman has also embraced flexible job opportunities since becoming a mother and had a similar experience to Rickaby’s. “I wanted to work from home when my children were born in order to be there for them so I’ve altered my way of working to accommodate the needs of my family,” she explains. “This has often meant working long hours, early mornings, weekends and evenings.”
Also due to the lack of flexibility, career progression can be tougher for working mothers. “It’s been harder to take some opportunities that I’ve wanted to take, particularly if they aren’t family friendly […] I have felt like I have missed out on promotional opportunities as a result,” says Rickaby.
When requests were approved, often they were not convenient. Rickaby recalls an experience at one company where she asked to work from home for one day a week. Instead she was granted a half day. Rickaby says: “ I had to come into the office in the morning, which took an hour, work the morning, then travel home in my lunch hour, then log on from home for the rest of the afternoon.”
This left her with barely any time for her children. The following year she asked for 10 days unpaid leave. The request was granted, but with a sting in the tail. She says: “The Chief Executive said he was disappointed that I had made the request as the part-time/term-time staff were holding the organisation back and he thought I was different! I left the job after being asked to spend three weeks in Asia.”
The past year and a half has shown the need to implement flexible working into every working sector.
“For my mental health and the needs of my family, flexible work is essential,” says Rahaman. She adds that her son has autism and requires extra care so she needs to be around him more. She doesn’t want to be away from him for long working days. “I have many skills which could be applied to different jobs, but I can only apply for certain ones due to the location and hours,” she says.
Often employees are required to be flexible with their schedule, working additional hours and on weekends. So, why can employers not be flexible themselves in allowing different working patterns based on their employee’s needs?
As Rickaby explains: “It’s a two-way process; I’m flexible with my time when I am needed to attend an event, meeting outside of hours, and I expect the same level of flexibility when I want to attend my children’s sports day or take them for a dentist appointment.
“I feel aggrieved that I’ve had to sacrifice so much to progress in my career whilst being a mum. I can do both, but I need an element of flexibility to do so, which, until recently, has just not been forthcoming,” she adds.
Rahaman also explains how her career has benefited from that flexible element. “I haven’t been motivated by ambition previously and since working flexibly I’ve been able to do many different kinds of projects, which if I was in an office job, I’d be stuck doing the same things,” she says.
However, flexible working campaigners are clear that giving flexible job options should not mean requiring the employee to work more as a result of that or impacting their pay and career progression.
Rickaby has definitely done that. When she returned to her job following her first maternity leave, she was told that she was not allowed to work from home under any circumstances. “My employer reluctantly gave me the option to work 9:30am to 4:30pm three days a week in the office with the caveat that I made up the extra time on the two days when I was out of the office,” says Rickaby. She adds: “This felt like such a privilege, so I worked extra hours on my days off and allowed myself to be available as a result. I stayed longer in that job than I should have because it was well paid and ‘flexible’.”
Before Covid-19, remote working was less common and flexible working options were often associated with working mums. Just 11% of the workingmums.co.uk survey respondents had worked from home before Covid-19. The pandemic has definitely had an impact on their perception of work-life balance and how much can be accomplished without having to follow the default 9 to 5 schedule.
After a year and half of working remotely, more people have experienced the different ways jobs can be carried out, giving hope to mothers who have been asking for this change a long time before the pandemic.
37% of the survey’s respondents said that the pandemic has made them more likely to want to work remotely and 36% said that they are more likely to want to work in a hybrid way.
If more workers push for flexible job opportunities and employers understand the benefits and embrace change, working mothers won’t have to feel like outsiders anymore. By having flexibility as a default, it could also take away the guilt from employees making that request and break the gender stereotype related to flexible work.
“During lockdown, most of us managed to get our jobs done, without a formal office, or childcare. We supported our children with home schooling and all whilst a global pandemic was raging,” Rickaby explains. “Just imagine what we could accomplish as a workforce, if we were able to choose within reason the hours we worked and where we worked?”