“I recently read that there are more CEOs named John than there are women CEOs. I’m changing my name to John.” (Overheard at ‘She Runs It’ – Working Mother of the Year Awards, 2017)
Seven years ago, I had my first child. I was in my early 30s, and I had worked in the City in executive search for a decade. I liked planning, so I ‘planned’ a 10-month maternity leave, followed by a smooth transition back into the workplace where, I was assured, I would find an escape from the chaos of parenting, and relative peace and calm back in the adult world of ‘coffees on the commute’, and client meetings. It certainly sounded attractive. Of course, I loved my son, but I found myself looking forward to returning to work, and reclaiming that side of my life and my identity.
Fast forward to a rainy Wednesday in March 2013, six months after my first day back in the office, and once again, I could be found en route to the nursery, utterly exhausted, with tears streaming down my face. Far from artfully juggling the pressures of being a working parent, it felt as if I was dropping every single ball. Nobody was winning – not my son, not my work, and certainly not me or my husband. The reality of the childcare run, endless sleepless nights, calls from nursery saying my son was unwell, the inability to be at my desk on time, or stay until the end of the day, combined with the fact that I felt I spent every penny I earnt on nursery fees and train tickets, was overwhelming. My husband did what he could to help and support, but he worked in a pressured environment himself, where attitudes towards being late or absent due to childcare-related issues were hardly progressive. It felt unbelievably tough. I had been brought up by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet, and I had devoured books such a ‘The Feminine Mistake,’ by Leslie Bennetts, a book that demands that women should absolutely seek to ‘have it all’ and protect their own financial and psychological future in the process. I believed wholeheartedly in the ideology, but it was terribly difficult to focus on the future when the present felt so challenging.
Five years on, I now co-own and manage a successful City-based search firm. I am also seven months pregnant with my second child. I credit my ability to co-run and manage our growing company to the many ‘life lessons’ I have learnt as a mother. Far from losing skills whilst on leave, I gained a huge amount of resilience and pragmatism, alongside the empathy and real-world view that often accompanies life-changing events, of which I have experienced a fair few. Given my work and that of my firm, conversations surrounding the importance of diversity, in every sense, is something I am close to on a daily basis, and the challenges facing working families are a frequent topic of discussion. Our focus is entirely on the financial services industry, and our company runs a busy Board practice, alongside our extensive executive search work. I am an Ambassador for The Diversity Project, a growing initiative that encourages focus on the importance of cognitive diversity in the workplace, so I am party to a lot of views, opinions and advances when it comes to this debate.
Diversity in the Workplace
Sizeable steps forward have been made in the now mature gender diversity conversation. Thanks to the impact of the Davies Review, and the continued focus on diversity driven by initiatives such as the 30% Club and Women On Boards, organisations are now being encouraged to address root causes when it comes to understanding, and correcting, the lower numbers of women in senior executive- and board-level roles. Nevertheless, there is an acknowledgement that there is still much to do, as evidenced by the recent Gender Pay Gap Review. Quoting the Financial Times in April 2018, “…the clearest finding from the data is that women are overwhelmingly likely to work for an employer where, overall, men are paid more, and that the main explanation for the gap is the presence of more senior men than women.”
Whilst people leave the workplace mid-career for many reasons unrelated to childcare, the elephant in the room for years has been family life. It is a fact that many women have children right around the time that their careers are starting to gather momentum, often having achieved seniority and success along the way. The plan is absolutely to return to work, and pick up where they temporarily left off. However, anybody who has experienced parenthood knows that the impact of taking time out of work, and then having to adjust to a working life that involves a new dimension of multi-tasking, the pressure of having a child who is ultimately completely dependent on them, the famous ‘parental guilt’ factor and the financial implications of attempting to ‘have it all,’ is significant. It is also a period of personal change and emotion, often unexpectedly impactful, and so business-led solutions have been hard to identify, discuss and implement. In her book, ‘How Hard Can It Be?’, Allison Pearson wrote: “My ideals told me that men and women could both go out to work and be truly equal. My children told me something more complicated, something I really didn’t want to hear. Their need for me was like the need for water or light: it had a devastating simplicity to it.”
One response from business has been the introduction of ‘Returnship’ programmes, which are increasingly prominent in the financial services industry, having first been brought into Britain in 2014 by Goldman Sachs. Placements tend to last around six months, and seek to support those on them with coaching and mentoring, alongside the time to refresh skills, knowledge and familiarity with the corporate landscape. It’s interesting to note that approximately 90% of those on official returnships in the UK in recent years have been women. The power of such programmes is that they actively welcome anybody who has taken time out from their career back into the workplace, but also address many of the obstacles that can stand in the way of those looking to do so.
Whilst not all organisations are able to put so much resource, time and thought into programmes such as this, the broader positive impact is the real and growing awareness that whilst returners are still at risk of being ignored, and might be perceived to have lost skills and relevance in a fast-changing corporate world, in fact, the opposite is often true. Returners offer an enormous amount in terms of knowledge, experience and capability, so long as they are working within a flexible environment that recognises their contributions.
Personally, I find it fascinating, and encouraging. In a world where we are bombarded by negative information in the press regarding politics, the economy, the impact of technology on real-world jobs, and the general direction of travel, it is remarkably refreshing to witness the impact of progressive thought when it comes to how families can live and work effectively, happily, and productively. Even small companies can do their part, and this month we ourselves hired a Returner into our firm. She is a bright, engaging and experienced woman, who has been out of the workplace for ten years to focus on the needs of her family.
My attitude has been shaped by my experiences as a mother, and by my closeness to the growing importance of ‘Return-to-Work’ initiatives in the City. The subtitle of Helena Morrisey’s new book, ‘A Good Time to Be a Girl’, sums it up: “Don’t Lean In, Change the System”. The world is certainly changing for us all, and it’s important to focus on and develop the ways in which it is doing so for the better.
Caroline founded Halsey Keetch, a specialist executive search, Board-level search and market intelligence firm in early 2015. She is passionate about business, and is engaged in the diversity and inclusion debate as an Ambassador for The Diversity Project. She is a speaker at various industry events and well-known in the City.