Lost cause

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“So what do you do?”. A question I could once answer with the gusto of a West End-bound RADA student. “I’m a journalist!”. Now after quitting my copywriting job at L’Oreal, I’m trying to Sellotape together a career from scraps of vlogging work and occasional ‘things with words’.

“I’m a vlogger,” I mutter, explaining to people my company is ‘Mother Pukka’, which my grandfather – somewhat aghast – responded with, ‘you realize that’s a French expletive?”

I am happy, I work my derriere off, but it’s certainly not the career I grafted for; the path I pondered, furrow-browed over my GCSE choices for, thinking they’d make or break my big job in the big smoke with my own telephone and computer. (The career that would make my grandfather proud.)

It’s not the career I’d have chosen; ‘choice’ being high on the chalk board here.

So there’s 18 years before Mae, my three-year-old daughter potentially dips a toe into employment waters. If she chooses to have a kid, then by my appalling maths (I’m words, not numbers), we’ve got around 30 years for the UK workplace to give itself a proper flexible working MOT.

That’s three decades to stop the flood of women being elbowed out of jobs – for an abundance of reasons, each inextricably linked to hoofing a kid out; to working on life.

Sure the troupe of mamas launching businesses in the wake of this stark inflexibility is nothing short of brilliant. Whether a mum boss or mum-don’t-give-a-toss, there’s a ton of folk rolling up their sleeves and making work actually work for them.

From Fiona Burrage at Nor-Folk to Joanne at Retro Kids, it’s honest to god clapping emojis all round.

But it’s the big boys, the suits, the archaic companies and the media hubs – with hordes of less yoghurt-stained twenty somethings vying for your position – that are akin to the hulking great Titanic to manouevre; they’re the ones I’m after. Where it was once talk of pay rises and benefits, it’s now words like ‘retention’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘support’ that get me fired up.

“I had one senior sales director refer to me only as ‘mummy’ when I returned from maternity leave,” one anonymous follower (from a leading law firm) messaged me after my last Instagram post. Another said her boss mentioned only her ‘leaving’, never going on ‘maternity leave’.

There’s no response to this, other than: businesses, don’t be dicks; Human Resources managers, grow some. If you don’t believe me and my Mother Pukka/Fucker ways, then Carla Moquin, founder of Parenting in the Workplace Institute, has slightly more authoritative chat.

“There is a big gap between what people expect is going to happen and what actually happens,” she says, speaking of the moment most mothers return to the office after maternity leave. “So our biggest hurdle is education – giving these companies the information and ideally convincing them that it [flexible working] works for enough different job types and organisations, and has enough benefits for both the employee and employer, that it is worth it for them to just try.”

To quote Lloyd [Jim Carey’s character] from Dumb and Dumber, “Just when I thought you couldn’t be any dumber, you go and do something like this…” That something? It’s the £30,000 (Carla’s estimate) on trying to recruit another person to do your job once you’ve handed in that faded security pass.

This isn’t some knackered mama slobbering on about flexible working because she likes emailing in her pyjamas and watching Homes Under The Hammer before a conference call.

This is a cost to business; the companies refusing to find solutions to accommodate basic human nature. A primal need to feed/ bathe/ care for a child that can’t manage those things him or her self. This is about supporting your employees to build your business, while enabling them to build lives.

If you had to stand back from it all – and envision the dulcet tones of David Attenborough trickling through – life is surely of the essence here, not an Excel spreadsheet. “And here we have the Excel spreadsheet, that wily little bugger” (David never swears; if he did I feel ‘bugger’ would be his word).

But that’s not to say we’re work shy. God no. As parents we can accomplish an entire house clean (often with a solitary wet wipe), while Skyping Aunty Janet for her birthday, doing an Ocado order with one hand and changing a nappy with the other. We come back from maternity leave stronger and infinitely more capable of handling shit that hits the fan.

There’s less emotional space for office politics, more for getting shit done. Give an inch of flexibility, we’ll return a mile. If we don’t? In the words of that irksome Frozen earworm, ‘Let it go” – let us go. But give us a chance first.

And it’s not fair to point the finger solely at the top dogs here. It’s a combined effort. It’s as much to do with the raised eyebrows from colleagues as you exit the building at 5pm – looks that assume you’re off to plunge head first into a Weatherspoons happy hour. It’s about education within businesses and a shift in attitude from the top – from the nucleus; from the board.

For every one that is getting it right, there are 7,689 that fear change; that can’t trust those they bizarrely trust every day to hold their baby; their business. But what if they relinquish that strict 9-6pm policy? What if people – not just parents – ebbed and flowed into the building, ensuring i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed? Is a world where bums-on-seats doesn’t equal a pay rise but results and output does so far off?

I don’t believe allowing people to work solely from home is the answer – there’s a camaraderie in an office and I do love a communal packet of hob nobs for sorting the givers from the takers. But there has to be a mid-way ground. There has to be a way to enable those who want to work for you to continue doing so. Like with the best relationships, it’s two-way traffic. If you offer a horse a carrot, that equine is more likely to give that race a good go. If in doubt channel Black Beauty and Squire Gordon.

A case in point? Investment banking firm Goldman Sachs opened the City of London’s first (and as yet only) on-site crèche in 2003.

We’re talking free use of the nursery for four weeks to support transition back to work from parental leave and then full-time paid childcare available for those who say alternative arrangements are challenging.

It’s not all about flexible working – it’s about an openness to solutions, in whatever form – to an issue that is culling top female talent. Why are there still so few women on boards every media rag hollers? It’s because women – who happen to be mothers – are forced to choose between a life of galloping to daycare like a frenzied mosquito to pick-up a watery-eyed kid or to graft on steely-faced and throw money at the situation with grim defeat.

“There is nothing more stressful than worrying about childcare,” says Marnie Cheshire, a former Goldman Sachs employee, whose son used the facility from six months to three years old. “It was incredible to be able to have him there. I knew that he was happy – I could go down any time.”

This is one company. What about the slew of others? Those who can’t afford to transform their cavernous basement into a veritable enfant palais?

When I posted that I’d quit my job a few months ago, I had no idea how many others felt the same. Since then I’ve had leads; I’ve had friends of friends, followers and past colleagues reach far and wide for our Flex Appeal cause. But I don’t want this to be a witch hunt or a moaning space (my motto has always been ‘wine over whine’); I also don’t want to wade through marketing guff from companies that pretend everything is OK if written down with a nice photo.

Together with my husband @papa_pukka, we’re working on an overview of companies that are getting it right in an attempt to bring others into the nook; to make flexibility seem less foreign and more attainable. To gradually (well, within 30 years when I’ll be blathering on as Grandmother Pukka) change perception.

For now, if there are any HR managers, folk from big companies reading this, take a look at the Parenting in the Workplace Institute guidelines for ideas on how other companies are making flexible working work. Have a think. Because, really, this isn’t all about us, it’s more about you – what we can do for you.

But who am I to talk? A vlogger? A flogger? Failed career detritus? One thing’s for sure, I ain’t no journalist.

 

 

Anna Whitehouse

Founder of Mother Pukka, Anna Whitehouse likes super hero cape-making classes and dislikes the naming of celebrity couples (TomKat, Brange etc.) She tries (and often fails) to parent the shit out of life.

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