Flexibility for parents is way past its due date

children playing

by Kathryn Kendal
When people ask me what I do, I sometimes struggle to answer. From the way they have phrased the question, it’s apparent that they are expecting a simple and straightforward, linear answer: “I’m a doctor.” “I’m a builder.” “I work in Tesco.”

The trouble is, there is very little that’s simple or straightforward about what I do. And I’m not necessarily talking about my job role as Chief People Officer here at Benefex (although that is rarely simple or straightforward).

You see, I am indeed a senior HR professional and director. But I am also a mother. My day-to-day responsibilities span both professional and personal life. And while the easier response – and one I often fall into the trap of giving – is to simply state my job title, to do so is disingenuous, does my children an enormous disservice, and actually does nothing at all to change the status quo.

Make no mistake about it, the status quo needs to change. For too long, organisations the world over have attempted to shy away from the fact that, at the most basic level, we need people to have children if we want the human race to continue. We all know this to be true, and yet despite this, we have always treated pregnancy, childbirth, and the very act of bringing up our children as something which should, in an ideal world, be kept far, far away from the office doors.

As much as I hate to say it, I am still very much a minority. Women who hold senior roles in business and also care for young children are the exception rather than the rule. Men outnumber women on FTSE 100 boards by 4 to 1.

Now, there are a number of reasons for this, and it’s not going to be all about children. I have a number of female friends who simply don’t want to progress their career as aggressively as I do. I have others whose choice of career – for example, working within the care sector – doesn’t naturally lend itself to taking on roles at the most senior level. I know still others who will tell me that they couldn’t possibly do what I do. “It must be terrifying!”

And, yes, sometimes it is! But I have been fortunate. I have been afforded the best possible opportunities in life, in both my education and in the familial support I have had around me. My education was a mix of private and outstanding state sector. I went on to go to drama school. While the parallels between drama school and a career in HR might not be immediately obvious, the one thing drama school does teach you is how to become fearless. You come to believe that anything is possible. As a result, it has never even occurred to me that I would not be able to reach whatsoever career pinnacle I set my sights upon.

My good fortune continued outside of my years in education. I have gone on to spend the bulk of my career so far working for two very different, but incredibly supportive organisations. As a result, both the fact that I am female and my decision to have children have had a non-effect on my career. Both at Candyking and now Benefex I have had limitless support to integrate my work and home lives. Consequently, I am now in the incredibly fortunate position to have achieved everything I have wanted in both my personal and professional lives. I recognise just how privileged I am to have been able to do this, and I don’t take it for granted for even a moment.

That’s all well and good… but I in isolation am not going to change the landscape of the progression of women in business, and the need for a total change of mindset when it comes to how we approach allowing people to manage their home and professional lives. To do so, we are going to need to see a sustained and fundamental shift of culture to something far closer to what I have been fortunate enough to experience.

Let’s explore a few elements of the child-raising process in more detail. We’ll start with the biology of having children. While science advances at an incredible rate, it has not changed the fact that it is still only women who are biologically able to give birth. When we talk about equality in the workplace, this places women on an uneven footing from the get go. They either have children, or they are seen by organisations rather like a ticking time bomb: someone who could at any point “go off and get pregnant.”

Many organisations, particularly those which are smaller, struggle with managing maternity leave for a number of reasons. The primary one is cost. While most companies are able to reclaim the majority of the costs of SMP through the Government, they still have the cost of recruiting, training and paying for a maternity cover, not to mention the indirect cost of loss of knowledge and knowhow while the individual on maternity leave is out of the business.

This therefore leads to maternity leave being seen – even if subconsciously – as something which will negatively affect the business. And it is not only the business which will be feeling those adverse effects. Maternity leave – and maternity pay – can cripple a family, at the very time when they most need the blanket of financial security around them. When you consider that women need to take time away from work in order to give birth (and thereby guarantee the future of the human race), the fact that they are also expected to manage with what can be a paralysing percentage drop to their household income is, to my mind, unacceptable.

It is not my intention for this post to become political, but this is something which needs addressing at a national level. True, there are some large, cash-rich organisations who can and do support women taking maternity leave on full pay. This needs to become the norm rather than the exception, and it needs to be funded via central Government, to avoid small businesses being financially impaired should one of their employees take maternity leave – and thus having the vicious cycle of negativity towards maternity leave continue.

And what about the fathers in all of this? Again, it is a fact that childcare responsibilities, particularly during the early years of a child’s life, fall primarily to the mother. Now, there is an argument that this is again partly down to biology – for example, no amount of scientific advances are going to allow a man to lactate. But, far more than this, it is also because of the fact that men remain the primary wage earner in the majority of householders. Most families, when it comes to deciding how they will balance childcare for their new baby, will do so based on the financial practicalities as opposed to what is best for their own individual circumstances. If the man is the higher wage earner, and he is reduced to a rate of statutory paternity or parental leave while he takes time away from work, then there is a good chance it will quickly become impossible to meet rent or mortgage commitments.

In very simple terms: if we really want to wipe out gender inequality in our workplaces, then it is time to give both men and women the option of a full year of paid leave to look after their new baby. Ridiculously aspirational? Maybe. The only way to really tackle the issue? I believe so.

So that tackles the period of time after the baby is first born. But what about that? What happens when one or both parents decide that they want to return to work?

We still find ourselves very much trapped in a belief that a 9-5 culture is the best way to deliver maximum productivity. It isn’t. My personal view is that the 9-5 is dead, and that within the next 10 years we will see standard fixed working patterns fall by the wayside for ever, to be replaced by working hours which are agreed on a case-by-case basis, to suit the needs of both employer and employee.

I haven’t worked ‘standard’ office hours since my first child was born back in 2007. Remember: I was lucky enough to have an employer who, even back then, was entirely receptive to my desire to effectively integrate my work and home life. Initially, I worked a four day week, with flexibility to work from home if my son was unwell and I needed to be with him. Later, when he started school, I went back to five days, working two longer days and three shorter days to allow me to do the school run.

Now, with both of my children in school, I work five days a week in the office. I bookend each day working from home, to allow me to take them to breakfast club and collect them from after school club. On Friday afternoons I work from home, so that I can pick them up from their classrooms and speak to their teachers if needed. On occasion – where they are unwell, or have an inset day – I will schedule my full day to work from home so that I can be there in the house to watch over them. They are now, at 6 and 9, at the age where (provided the WiFi is working) they barely need me!

I am fully aware that my good fortune in regards to my working pattern is not the norm. But it needs to become so. Because until it does, we will never see true equality within our working environments. And not only that. We will continuously underdeliver from a productivity perspective as a result. Studies prove that organisations which are more diverse deliver greater productivity. Individuals who are permitted to fully integrate their work and personal lives are more productive also.

It is time for us all to wake up to the fact that our work and home lives do not switch off the moment we pivot through our office/home door. Sometimes a work-related crisis will escalate outside of office hours. It needs to be dealt with. Similarly, sometimes our family responsibilities will need addressing inside of work hours. The smartest organisations out there already know this. They recognise this, and they do so by allowing their employees to flex their working patterns accordingly. Whether I am working in the office, outside of the office, or, as was the case the other night, sitting up in bed with my daughter asleep next to me, shouldn’t matter. We need to judge people on their outputs, not the time they spend sitting at their desks.

And if we think we have challenges in the UK, then, truly, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are a number of other countries we can learn from, countries who are far better at supporting childcare responsibilities than we are. Research by the Trades Union Congress found that the UK ranks 22 out of 24 countries across Europe for its statutory maternity leave. But, in other parts of the world, there is a positive mountain to be climbed. In the US, new mothers are entitled to just 2.8 weeks’ paid maternity leave. Australia is not far behind, on 7.6 weeks.

Perhaps, this is our opportunity to get it right. Perhaps, in the UK, we can lead the way. We have an opportunity here, both on a national, and on a company by company level – to make the change we so desperately need.

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We need people to have children. If those who choose to have children are ostracised from our workplaces, we directly shoot ourselves in the foot. Businesses need diversity; diversity drives greater productivity. Why not, today, be that organisation to step forward and make that change? Be that business to overhaul your parental leave, to fully embrace a flexible approach to working, and to truly allow talented people within your business, whatever their gender, race, age, disabilities or anything else, to come and deliver for you.

Believe me; it will be worth it.