Professional working parents - Can you really have it all?
9th July 2012
On Friday 22 June, I was delighted to be a Panel Speaker at Brit Mums Live 2012 discussing the perennial issue of whether it’s possible to really have it all, i.e. work, life and children, and be happy. This blog addresses some of the key themes that emerged.
No two people are the same and “having it all” means different things to different people. In order to be truly happy, you have to think clearly about what “having it all” means to you. Do you actually want to “have it all”?; are you trying to keep others happy rather than be true to yourself?; are you attempting to live up to others expectations of and ideals for you, which may not work for you or your family?
Right or wrong career advice
A key theme which emerged from the discussion was whether we should be giving our daughters appropriate career advice at an early stage about what kind of career is compatible with having a fulfilling family life, thus enabling them to make appropriate career choices early on. However, I question why such careers advice should only be given to our daughters, as opposed to our sons too, if the family-friendly legislation that the Government has introduced is to have the intended effect of “encouraging shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy.”
Is this not accepting that some professions cannot ever be family friendly, whereas we should, in my view, be actively encouraging employers to value the benefits of flexible working, which will enable them to retain the skills, talent and experience of women of childbearing age. All professions can and should embrace flexible working for all parents, and parents should be actively demonstrating as positive role models how it can work across all industry sectors, with small changes being made and a positive mindset being adopted. Parents, and particularly fathers, should be open about the fact that they work flexibly, so that we can encourage a positive culture of “flexible working heroes”.
Some audience members at Brit Mums questioned whether we are setting our daughters up to fail by letting them think that they can have it all, and others were disappointed that their daughters would choose to give up their careers and devote themselves to “just” being mothers and wives, having been unhappy themselves about their own mothers working and perhaps not being there for them as much as they would have liked them to have been. My personal view is that it is important, not only for my daughter but also for my son to see that their mother can have a successful career, as well as being a hands-on devoted mother. I believe that this sets a good example to my children so that both do not think that women should or need to be dependent on men economically and that my daughter is able to stand on her own two feet financially. You never know what life may throw at you, divorce, illness etc. It’s also important for my son to see his father play an equal role in the child-caring and sharing of household chores, so that he will fully support his partner or wife in pursuing her career, if that’s what she chooses to do, and that he will share the domestic load with her, thus enabling him to be a good partner and have fulfilling personal relationships in the future.
Who’s taking advantage of increasing family friendly rights?
Family friendly rights have improved dramatically over the last few years with increases in maternity leave and maternity pay and the introduction of extended paternity leave. However, it’s only when fathers feel able to and do take advantage of these increased paternity and parental rights that we will have true equality in the workplace. We will only have a level playing field at interview stage when employers look at men and women and genuinely believe that there is an equal chance of a man taking 6 – 9 months parental leave as there is of a woman taking additional maternity leave.
There has been a low take-up in other European countries of increased paternity rights and we need to consider why the take-up is so low here in the UK as well. Is it just as a result of the economic climate? Are working fathers concerned about being penalised financially in terms of pay, bonus and career progression if they are seen to take advantage of family friendly employment rights, which apply equally to men? These issues frequently faced by working mothers may well become parental rather than maternal only issues in the future.
The balance of parental and professional responsibilities
Many fathers want to be more hands-on with their children and spend more time with them. In families where both parents are professionals and earn an equal, or similar level of salary, or where the female is the main breadwinner (and the number of such families are increasing rapidly), then it is much easier to obtain an equilibrium and “have it all” when both parents share the juggling act, rather than just the mother having to do so alone. The COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg said last year that “The most important career choice you will make is who you will marry.” There is a debate in The Girls Day School Trust at present about whether teaching girls to strive for the best in all they do should expressly be extended to encouraging them to seek out a partner who will support them through all their life choices including career and be their cheerleader through all their professional triumphs and tribulations, as well as those faced by them in their personal lives.
Choosing the right employer
Another key issue is the importance of not only choosing the right partner, but also choosing the right employer. It became clear from our discussion that whilst most professional firms have family-friendly policies, the way in which they are implemented and the culture of some companies leaves a lot to be desired. A number of attendees had not informed their employers that they were attending or speaking at the Conference, whereas my firm positively encourages me to do so and to be open about such issues. In fact I and other female partners working flexibly or part-time have been commended as being positive role models for more junior members of staff. However the more senior one becomes, the easier it is to juggle the demands of work and family life, as one is able to delegate more easily. That is probably why the age of first time mothers has increased dramatically over the past few decades. I would issue a word of caution though, don’t put your personal life on hold in the hope of achieving promotion first, if you want to have children. That promotion may never come, and you may leave it too late to have children.
Flexing the hours we work
A number of audience members had given up high-flying careers in the City to set up their own businesses, so that they could choose the hours they worked, in order to fit in with their child-caring responsibilities. I applaud them for doing so, but I also believe that one can obtain similar results by finding an employer that allows you to work full-time but flexibly if that is what you wish to do. For example, I start work early and leave work early in order to see my children at the beginning and end of each day. Recent research in the U.S has shown that most parents want to work compressed days so that they can spend quality time with their children each morning and evening. With technological advances, it is possible to keep in touch with clients and the office via Blackberry whilst on the train on the way to or from doing the school run and then to log on to work systems from home in the evening, once the children are asleep.
I believe that the Olympics is going to make it harder for employers to turn down flexible working requests as a matter of course in the future on the basis that it just won’t work in certain departments, without giving such requests serious consideration. If flexible working can work well for businesses during the Olympics, then it should work equally well when it is parents who want to work flexibly for childcare reasons.
So, what’s the conclusion?
No-one ever said having one’s cake and eating it would be easy. There is no doubt that holding down a full-time job and raising a family whilst trying to have a fulfilling relationship with one’s partner is tiring, but not necessarily more so than some of the other options open to parents such as running one’s own business or staying at home with the children and there is nothing professionals like more than a challenge.
Employment law is there to enable parents to juggle work, children and maintain a work/life balance more effectively, should we choose to do so. We have more choices available to us than our parents’ generation ever had and that must be a good thing going forwards for both us and our children.