READ The Right to Request Flexible Working came into force on 6 April 2003. Eighteen years on, four early adopters look back on their decision to work flexibly, and share their hopes as their children are poised to enter the workforce.
“I chose to have children and it was really important to me that I spent as much time with the children as possible, as well as having a career. So I would say that I self-limited my career progression,” says Hannah Young*, a senior D&I practitioner who in 2003 took her first step into flexible working by agreeing with her employer to reduce her working hours to a four day week, and in 2006 began jobsharing, which she did for another ten years.
I spoke to four women who took advantage of the new right to request flexible working when it was first introduced in 2003 and found that, although each had a very different story to tell, the common thread was that none regretted having stepped sideways in order to be the kind of parent they wanted to be. Although all regretted that it had been necessary to press pause on their careers, and each hoped – although also doubted – that the world of work today would make such choices easier for their soon-to- be adult children.
Rhonda D’Ambrosio, the Founder in 2019 of Mental Health in Recruitment, had the most challenging experience. She was working for a large recruitment agency and had been promised a promotion before she became pregnant. She had to fight for her promotion, and fight again to be able to return after maternity leave on a three day week. Her then employer was probably typical of many, resistant to the change and not seeing the opportunity that this gutsy and ambitious young woman was presenting to them. Rhonda says, “I didn’t feel much loyalty to that business because I felt like it had been circumstantial, not that they actually valued me or wanted to keep me and were trying to find ways to support me. I got what I wanted by fluke, by maybe being a bit stubborn. I paved the way for [other women] to get flexible working. And that was important to me. It was worth it to dig my heels in [because of that].” She left, along with another colleague, and started what she describes as “a mums’ business”, which might not have taken her up the career ladder but did enable her to work and parent as she wished to. And now her right to request baby is 17. She is pleased with where her derailed career has taken her and does not regret the ‘recruitment Rhonda’ who she left behind. She thinks there’s a long way to go though. “I hope that organisations are doing more to encourage everyone … I don’t think having a family should inhibit anybody’s opportunities or career path. I think [fathers are] the bigger thing now. Maybe we’ve broken down some of the walls for women, but actually there’s still a lot of work to be done for fathers.”
Ruth Thomas faced no difficulties in having her four day week proposal accepted, not least because she worked within the HR team and had had a role in creating the new policy for the investment bank that employed her. The challenge she faced was the structural demands of her role in compensation. “Pretty much from the end of November through till March you didn’t go home. For months of the year you had no life, so it was hard to balance that with being a parent.” This drove her decision to step off the corporate career pathway, and take up interim work for a number of years. “Ultimately I chose to leave and do my own thing because I knew it was not realistic to be able to get the balance I wanted. Maybe I could have fought harder is what I think with hindsight. But there was also an element of I was done with fighting the internal politics/promotion wheel – taking this out of my working day gave me the time to still do work I enjoyed and have time with my family.” After a while she got back to the Director level she had left behind, in interim roles, and on her terms, not during the summer holidays and generally four days per week. In 2009/10 she co-founded her business Curo Compensation, where she is now Industry Principal, with Curo running on highly flexible patterns for all staff, regardless of care responsibilities. She too points to the need for real culture change and how important it will be for opportunities to be taken up by men. “I think there is undoubtedly more awareness, and leading organisations are attempting to tackle the whole issue of shared parental leave and flexible working, but we still need a change in mind-set. I still think the weight is on women’s shoulders to fight for this. It shouldn’t be that way. There should be equality and it should be an equal playing field.”
Suzie Leighton describes herself as fortunate. After a career in small arts organisations, she found herself working in a two-person project embedded within a leading university. When she became pregnant, to her delight she realised that being employed by a large organisation with a good HR team brought significant benefits, and that the right to request flexible working, information about which was included in the maternity pack, would give her and her partner the chance to create the work family balance they both wanted. She proposed a jobshare arrangement to her maternity cover – and they have been jobsharing ever since, having spun their project out of the university and set up independently some years ago. She is soberly realistic about her family's good fortune. “If I had given up work even for a couple of years, my partner (a freelance sound engineer) would have had to stop doing what he does and loves, and found full time ‘regular’ work. [And] one of the other reasons that I feel so grateful is that it has enabled me to keep a part time job at a particular status and salary, which are really like hens’ teeth. I’ve got so many friends that didn’t have the same kind of support around right to request. Either it was very grudging or they were told it had been considered but it had been turned down or the culture was such that it was made so difficult for them and they actually had to stop working for four or five years and then to try and get back into the job market at the level that they’d left was almost impossible.” But she doesn’t see that much change. “I think you can point to some small gains maybe, but I think certainly if you look at the two sectors that I mainly work across – arts and heritage, and higher education – it’s still run by white men of a certain age.”
Hannah Young, from her perspective as a D&I professional, also confesses to having become quite cynical about the lack of true change in the corporate world, especially around gender. “Are we ever actually going to change this? Are we ever going to make a material difference? It just doesn’t seem to be genuinely shifting things.” She feels that, for her daughters as they enter the workforce, there will certainly now be much more possibility to work flexibly if they are in white collar roles, supported by the increasing use of digital, but she does not feel that there is yet much scope to reduce hours without concurrent career limitation.
But all the same, her words echoed those of the others who spoke to me, and continue to give me hope that, generation by generation, women – and men – are chipping away at the culture that says parenting and career can’t mix.
“I look back on those ten years [of jobsharing] and for me, they probably were golden years because I genuinely felt that I had the worklife balance that I needed at that time in my life.”
The right to request offered choice and opportunities that were not available to most women, or men, before 2003. It also brought with it real career risks, and almost certainly still does, whenever flexible working involves reduced hours. But Hannah, Rhonda, Ruth and Suzie: each in her own way is a work-life Edith Piaf, confidently confirming, "Je ne regrette rien".
*not her real name