With more couples than ever deciding that both partners will go back to work upon having a family, you would think that businesses would have adapted to workers' parental obligations. In a society where we’re encouraged to start families, with literal tax breaks, our working culture is still ignoring the basic need for flexibility when we've actually had children. Since childcare responsibilities unduly burden mothers over fathers, working mothers are the ones that have to pay for this negligence.
In fact, a survey by Feel - a London-based recruitment consultancy - has shown that working mothers are losing out on potential earnings of £1.3 trillion because they’re forced to trade their experience and qualifications for more flexible hours. We might have almost 75% of mothers going back to work, according to the ONS, but they’re in jobs they’re over-qualified for, and if working on a freelance basis, without the securities necessary for a family.
Jane Johnson, founder of Feel communications, knows all too well how it feels to hit a career wall after having children. An Oxford graduate with 20 years experience at large corporate companies, Jane was director of Communications at HSBC and returned to work on a job-share basis after 8 months maternity leave. After another year in this role, herself now proof that job-share at a director level is equally as productive for the company, she chose to progress further, looking outside of HSBC. However, what she found was that little to no options for progression were available on a flexible or job-share basis.
‘Many companies have great return to work policies,’ she tells me, ‘if you already work there they’ll bring you back and you can have a conversation about flexible working, there’s laws around how you can ask for flexible working upon return, but the issue is when you try and move on from that job, no one wants to know.’
Staggered by the lack of companies willing to take on new talent on a flexible contract, she decided to start FEEL, a recruitment company based around candidates who need adaptable contracts. It’s not just parents either, increasingly her clients are younger people who just want more of a work life balance. As a result, companies who don’t accommodate flexible workers are set to be left behind.
It’s not the companies that are in the dark ages though, according to Jane it’s the recruitment agencies they use to find talent.
‘The problem is with the recruitment industry, when they have a new job, recruitment is outsourced and it’s a numbers based game. You have thousands of candidates on your database, 99% of whom can work 5 days a week in an office, and they’re all competing. It's commission based, so who are you going to place in the job? Someone who doesn’t cause you any problems, who isn’t going to ask about flexible working, someone whose going to get you the biggest commission - so someone whose working on a full time salary.’
There’s also a lack of understanding when it comes to job flexibility, with many employers unsure of job-shares, part-time workers and pro-rata pay.
‘We were working with a client recently and I suggested a job share, so two candidates for one job, and they said “oh but that would be twice the salary”' explains Jane. 'No, it actually wouldn’t because you pay them pro rata so if they’re only in three days a week you pay them three fifths of the salay. There’s not a lot of understanding at all.’
Jennifer Tomlinson, Professor of Gender and Employment relations at Leeds University Business School, agrees women’s progression can be ‘severely hampered’ by a lack of flexibility in senior roles. Her research found that employers are close-minded when it comes to flexibility, specifically job shares:
‘I think people very quickly see the challenges of making a job share work effectively but what they don’t see are the positive attributes that job sharers bring. You have two minds thinking through complex problems rather than one, they might cover for each other if one is sick or takes leave, they bring flexibility and two minds to the job but so often people have a negative attitude to job shares from the outset that they’re difficult to make work.’
The primary difficulty with job shares is ensuring there’s continuity between the two positions, whether that’s ensuring there’s enough communication or consistency in management styles. However, these are issues that can easily be solved if managers are willing to try. Jennifer continued:
‘If you find resistance from the start, if there’s a reluctance to try out new ways of working, that can be a really big barrier. Where you’ve got managers who embrace flexible working you often find it works, where you find managers who make assumptions it will be difficult to manage or won’t work it’s almost a non-starter.’
It’s not just women who lose the opportunity for fulfilling, flexible positions, it’s everyone. Caring for a family is only one reason for needing work tailored to a busy life, there’s illnesses, deciding to continue education or re-train. Over the course of our lives, there are a thousand reasons we may need to have flexible jobs. And it won’t just be employees who benefit, it’s the economy as a whole. Jennifer continued:
‘It would really enhance our economy to be have jobs that are more flexible and tailored to people’s needs across their life course, we’d have people not working jobs below their qualification and skills. That’s what keeps the economy growing, making sure we’re making use of the capacities and skills that people have.
‘It’s only going to become a more pressing issue with an ageing workforce, we have parents with young children, grandparents working in the labour market with caring responsibilities for their partners or grandchildren. The demand for good quality flexible jobs is only going to increase.’
There is one issue however, with flexible working, that Jennifer highlights. Seemingly, flexibility benefits senior roles, however low-skilled positions are more likely to be negatively impacted by flexible contracts. For example, zero hour contracts are a form of flexible working. It’s a concern of Jennifer’s:
‘We might see where you’re a senior valued employee, after working for an organisation some time, you may be afforded some flexibility. It may be for routine and low-skilled workers we see the kind of flexibility that really erode job quality and living standards.’
It’s therefore imperative that moving forward, we encourage positive flexibility for those who need or want it, avoiding loopholes that would allow employers to take advantage of this. In creating new legislature for employment, which has seen the right to ask for flexible work increase, it’s important to ensure the employees interests are put first - guaranteeing higher productivity and quality work that will only improve the economy as a whole. This will not only allow working mothers to reach their full potential, and potentially close the gender pay gap, but also encourage a more progressive workplace with a better work life balance for everyone.