Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards 2016: the debate

Working Mums - Top Employer Awards 2016 at the Soho Hotel

Workingmums.co.uk’s 10th anniversary Top Employer Awards ceremony celebrated 10 years of progress and looked forward to the next decade.

Keynote speakers were MPs Jess Phillips and Flick Drummond, co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Party on women and work. The group aims to understand the barriers that hamper women getting into and staying at work and rising up the career ladder.

The APPG is currently conducting an inquiry into women returners which will report in January. It is looking at what the barriers are and at good practice. Drummond said she had taken a career break to raise her four children and had found it very difficult to get back to work, adding that this impacted her confidence. “It’s such a shame as women who take time out for their families are a massive resource,” she said. “Employers are missing a big resource.” Other topics the APPG will cover include apprenticeships, sexism and self employment.

Both she and Jess Phillips are also on the Women and Equalities Committee, which has been addressing issues around discrimination against women. Drummond mentioned Workingmums.co.uk annual survey and the stigma still surrounding flexible working. She thought things would not change totally until men also embraced flexible working. And she added that she felt it was important to enable people to take time out from work for whatever reason without feeling that they might struggle to get back in. That, she said, would make for a happier society.

Jess Phillips said her experience was very different to Drummond’s. She was keen to get back to work after having her two children and her husband was a night shift worker and able to look after the children while she worked. She would not have been able to go back to work, though, if it had not been for tax credits because even though she had two degrees she earned less than her husband who had none. If men earned more than women, she said, it would always be the “natural choice” for women to raise the children.

She added that the UK still had a “1950’s parenting model” with the woman still expected to do most of the childcare and housework but also expected to keep working. “Women are taking on loads more, but not letting anything go,” she said.

How could this change? She said dads needed to start the conversations at work about having more time for family; everyone needed to stop thinking that childcare expenses came solely out of a woman’s salary; dads needed to push for better paternity rights; and women needed to stop apologising about working flexibly.

Q & A

The Q & A which followed the Awards ceremony,  was led by Jennifer Liston-Smith,  ‎Director and Head of Coaching & Consultancy at My Family Care, and included a panel made up of Jess Phillips, Andy Lake, editor of Flexibility.co.uk, Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation at Cranfield University, and Melanie Forbes, CEO of Guidant Group.

Questions included how to confront a recruiter who didn’t put forward a woman because of their caring responsibilities. Jess Phillips said this could either be because they perceived employers wouldn’t want them or just plain discrimination and therefore illegal. She suggested refusing to work with any recruitment agency which did this. “We need to push back at bad cultural practice,” she said. Andy Lake asked whether the use of artificial intelligence to pre-screen candidates might add to the problem by screening out people who had career gaps due to the algorithms under which they operated.

There was also a discussion of how to make good practice in flexible and family friendly working the norm. Vodafone, who won the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award for Innovation in Flexible Working, said it had initially been tough to push through their innovative global maternity policy – under which women can return on reduced hours for a short time and still be paid full-time wages. However, it was massively supported by employees and was attracting new people. “It was the right risk to take,” said a spokeswoman. Flexible working from recruitment onwards was also a big selling point for both men and women.

Berwin Leighton Paisner, who won the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award for Talent Attraction, said some people are reluctant to change, but that if there is a mandate from the top a policy could be pushed through. All their job descriptions open up a conversation about flexible working. It also forms part of the interview script.

Jess Phillips said such practice should be standardised by the government. Although there is good practice, there is clearly a lot of bad practice, she said, so the government needed to step in. She would like to see people being able to request flexible working from day one in a new job.

SPL and evidence-based policy

The panel were asked how businesses could promote Shared Parental Leave better. Jess Phillips said it was not shared leave if women were giving it away. Men needed stand alone leave as happened in Scandinavia. If it was viewed as the mother having something taken away from her it wouldn’t work.  Jennifer Liston-Smith agreed the Scandinavian approach boosted the number of dads taking leave, but she said enhancing SPL could also help. Moreover, many employers who did enhance pay did not actively promote that they did through internal communications, blogs, role models and so forth.

Another question focused on building an evidence-based case for diversity for boardrooms that weren’t receptive. A spokeswoman for Sky, who won the Workingmums.co.uk Overall Top Employer Award and Award for Career Progression, said they had gathered statistics and data from different departments and then set 50/50 targets across the board which they were tracking. For some departments the targets were easier to meet than for others. Andy Lake said organisations he worked with were often surprised by how much flexible working there was in different departments.

Clare Kelliher said there was a lot of informal flexible working and that this encouraged a sense of commitment, gratitude and a sense of reciprocity. On the other hand, there was a danger with informal agreements that they could be changed if, for instance, a new manager came in.

UK BodyTalk, shortlisted for the Top Employer Award for SMEs, said flexible working depended on good managers. Melanie Forbes added that Guidant Group’s research showed 80% of the problems around flexible working were to do with managers, whether male or female. That was why it was important to involve male leaders and to normalise flexible working. Jess Phillips agreed flexible working needed to be for everyone. Andy Lake commented that his work with government offices showed that the closer you got to Parliament the more rigid working patterns became.  Flexible working needed to be the norm; flexible working legislation at the moment made it the exception.

Clare Kelliher stated that different working arrangements needed to be celebrated publicly. The problem with informal flexibility was that it was often hidden. People often felt vulnerable and that they could not talk about it openly for fear of losing it. Jess Phillips felt women were too apologetic about flexible working. “We have to stop feeling grateful for having things that make our businesses money and increase productivity,” she said. “We need to be more kick ass.”



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