Why having a family shouldn’t stop your ambition
March 5, 2021

Every day we see the impacts of the pandemic on working parents in our role as executive recruiters and recruitment advisors.

Given working from home is likely to continue and may become the working norm, how can parents avoid stepping off the career ladder?

We spoke with Verena Hefti, the founder of Leaders Plus, a social enterprise supporting working parents during maternity leave, shared parental leave and beyond to discuss how to address the unique pressure of combining parenting with a leadership career.

What prompted you to set up Leaders Plus?

When I became pregnant and my bump grew, senior leaders suddenly changed the conversation with me. They asked me about nursery colours and whether I would be taking the foot off the pedal. There was this idea that I was going to push out my ambition with the baby.

During maternity leave I wanted reassurance so I read everything I could about career progression for parents. Sadly, it did not help. The gender pay gap widens at the age when women first have children, and all the evidence shows career progression for women with children is often severely hampered.

I convinced my local MP to host an event in the House of Commons with 60 leaders and 40 babies to find good role models. Many parents, and women, want to combine big careers with young children but need more help. So I launched Leaders Plus with the support of Cambridge Social Ventures.

What does Leaders Plus deliver?

Our award-winning Fellowship Programme combines a cross-sector peer network of working parents with structured career development workshops. We look at how to find a sponsor, to manage your ‘brand’, to juggle urgent work and personal requirements. There are sessions with your partner and your line manager. We look at key existential barriers for working parents and how to resolve these together.

Tell us more about a “personal brand” and parenting?

Working parents often present themselves as not having children – especially men. It is not useful when working parents portray themselves as always on and available. It can be lonely to be the only apparent parent on a management team, so people need role models to see it’s ok to be both. Leaders must role model both their parent and their professional identity to the business, otherwise nothing will change.

How can organisations ensure that working parents role model both roles?

Executives must ‘out’ their parent identity and make visible the other commitments, even share the ‘out-takes’ when work and family life collides. It all helps.

Think about the signal moments, for example, invite people to bring their baby to a meeting or call. That was one of the reasons that we brought babies to the House of Commons. We wanted to take babies to a place of power.

To what extent is flexible working the game changing solution?

Flexibility is vital but it often links to pay. Parents who work part time experience a significant pay penalty – around a quarter of the gender pay gap. Part time employees often take a pay cut in exchange for flexibility. They often work longer hours because they’re grateful. This needs to be addressed or it perpetuates the problem.

Is home working the solution?

Businesses need to be purposeful about ensuring home working embraces parenting. Many parents face high expectations to be the perfect worker and the perfect parent. We mustn’t drift into a two-class society where some people end up going into the office and others dial in and don’t get heard.

What is the role for legislation?

The law is important and many people need to be told their rights. Line managers still say things like “I don’t think you can take this job because of your commitments as a mother.” It’s not legal, but not everyone knows.

It should not be legal NOT to offer enhanced parental leave pay if you offer enhanced maternity pay, because that creates a real imbalance. There also needs to be protected shared parental leave for men as research shows this makes it more likely they will take time because their partner legally can’t use it.

The law needs clarity on the rules for rejecting a request for flexible working for a business reason – what does that mean? Are they really business reasons? Line managers should be accountable for how many people in their team work flexibly. Perhaps businesses should report the number of flexible working requests made and the number rejected as part of the gender pay gap. That would be eye-opening.

What advice would you give to a career-focused woman who is about to have her first baby?

Give yourself permission to be ambitious, even if people tell you it’s not possible. Don’t assume that a junior role is easier to handle.

Have structured conversations with your line manager to avoid assumptions. Managers sometimes make assumptions about what will work best for an individual: generally that doesn’t end well. Agree a structured plan that addresses career development and reminds managers that you’re still ambitious.

Be gentle on yourself. You don’t have to focus 100 per cent on work to progress your career, and you don’t have to think about your baby 24/7 to be a good parent.

If someone is looking to move to a more family-friendly business, are there tell-tale signs of how an organisation handles its working parents?

If the organisation does not have a gender pay gap action plan, this might be a red flag. While an action plan is not legally mandated it is recommended. Look at Companies House to see how many women are on the board. Also see if they publicise family-friendly initiatives or if they’ve won any awards.

Applications are currently open for the Spring cohort of the Leaders Plus Fellowship Programme. Find out more at www.leadersplus.org.uk/fellowship.

Lee Higgins was recently a guest on the Leaders Plus ‘Leaders With Babies’ podcast, discussing the importance of diversity in recruitment and how to challenge assumptions of working parents. Listen to the podcast here.

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