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Hello baby, bye-bye career?


By Katie McQuater, Magazine Editor

November 14, 2011 | 19 min read

Does the decision to have children wreck your career? It’s a crucial issue facing both men and women, although affecting the latter more, due to inequality in parental leave. Many people maintain a successful career and have a family, making it look easy as they flit from milk-stained sweaters to corporate suits. People obviously don’t like to admit that they have sacrificed their work life in order to have children. The reality is, however, that there are some for whom having children has been a choice made at the expense of continuing their career, or at least continuing at the same level as previously.

The Drum spoke to a part-time sales and admin executive at a publishing company. For thirteen years, she worked as a top-level marketing manager for a local authority. But when, in her mid-thirties, she made the choice to have a child, she was told there was no possibility of a career break. She believes that it is the inability of employers to invest in their staff in this way which knocks mothers off the career ladder. The Drum also spoke to a woman who did not want to be named, who worked in PR for a national telecommunications company for ten years. We have featured her story as a case study.

One of the major issues facing people looking to start a family whilst maintaining careers is the inequality in parental leave – currently, men are only entitled to two weeks paid leave after the birth of a child, whereas women, if they do not receive statutory maternity pay from an employer, will at least qualify for maternity allowance – for a period of 39 weeks. This vast inequality would suggest that it’s not sexism that’s keeping women out of jobs – it’s purely the fact that it often makes more sense, financially, for women to stay at home. In an ideal world, parental leave would be split equally to avoid discrimination against women of a childbearing age. If the UK could adopt a system similar to that of Sweden, where the parental welfare system is split much more equally, it would allow both men and women to balance work and family life more easily.

However, certain industries are starting to adapt to more flexible ways of working, with more and more professionals working on a freelance basis or founding their own start-ups. This creates a wealth of opportunities for new parents to return to work whilst maintaining a work-life balance. Due to the high number of female PR professionals, the public relations industry is arguably witnessing more of this type of working. Jane Wilson, CEO of CIPR, who has two children herself, has found that for many women, the very reason for starting their own companies was that it allowed them to be more flexible.

“There is definitely a rise of independent freelance PR entrepreneurs out there. I do find that for a lot of women I speak to who have done that, the driving force is that they have children or they have a family life and they need more flexibility. Not having a commute can make a difference.”

Whilst acknowledging that it’s all about balance, and that new mothers should “know their limits”, Jane also believes that there shouldn’t be a culture of fear amongst new mothers, with women lacking confidence in their ability after returning to work. She suggests that:

“If you’ve made a name for yourself, if you’ve got a reputation, if you’re willing to get yourself back out there and sell your experience, my experience is that people will welcome you.”

Some women, after having a baby, are faced with the prospect of returning to a job which, due to the soaring costs of childcare, essentially pays nothing. But many do return to their jobs after maternity leave, simply to avoid dropping out of their career. Jane Wilson doesn’t recommend this approach, however, saying that people have to want to do the job they are in:

“If you’re there because you have to be, you’re probably not doing anyone any favours. I think people should be bolder in their choices and be more confident that they can get back into it.”

Strategic consultancy CoSkill recently produced a white paper looking into whether government quotas are the most effective way to close the gender gap. The paper argues that equality in the workplace will result from equality in the home. Eve Morris, managing consultant at CoSkill, argues that it’s not helpful to pretend that the problems resulting from having children don’t exist:

“Having children has a disruptive impact on women’s careers. It just does – however it’s dressed it up and however we pretend it doesn’t, it just does. Having a baby doesn’t shrink ambition, but it can make it difficult for women to progress at work.”

She then goes on to summarise the way in which many women are finding a route around the difficult situation they find themselves in on returning to work, and suggests that:

“This environment can act as a catalyst for women to develop their own business ideas, on their own terms and therefore mumpreneurs are blazing their own trail. Indeed this has been a huge positive for the mothers who are earning more than they were pre baby by either freelancing or setting up their own businesses.”

It seems that government policy isn’t going to change, and childcare costs aren’t going to go down, any time soon. Whilst women are faced with difficult decisions to make, could it be that the spirit of entrepreneurship is the way forward?

In the following pages, we gain an insight into the different approaches to balancing home and work life, by speaking to women working in PR and digital marketing to find out how they are dealing with the change to their career, and whether they find their industry supportive of working parents as a whole.

Gillian Bruce, digital account manager, Extreme Creations & mum-to-be

"I'm preparing to go on Maternity leave in mid-January with my first child. My directors have been outstanding - and offered me a choice of full or part time hours to return to. I'm the first in the company to require Maternity leave and they have made the process smooth for me, even looking into ways for me to save money with things like childcare vouchers.

In my eyes, the digital industry is becoming more mother-friendly as there are now resources such as remote video conferencing and Skype. I'd say that there's still a valid importance attached to face-to-face meetings and presentations, and it may be trickier for a working mum to feel good in a full-time account manager's position for this reason, but I'd like to think that most companies have been as great as mine in assisting mothers back to work. I won't be returning to account management for this reason, and instead will focus more on the in-house communications and operations.

Maternity now actually includes 10 paid days of 'Keep in Touch'. In my case, I'll be working a series of half days during the later parts of maternity, to help me get back to speed with my job."

Mary-Louise Clews, Founder, MLCPR & parent of one

"I definitely wanted to get back to work after a year of maternity leave, but I didn't want to work more than two or three days a week so I could spend a decent amount of time with my son while still very young. Fortunately I had built up experience over the last ten or so years on both sides of the media fence- as a business journalist on a range of titles such as Marketing Week and Health Service Journal, and as a media manager for a couple of charities, so I could pitch for work both as a freelance journalist and a media consultant.

I've been very lucky with referrals and, a year on, the consultancy side has grown so well I have given my business a name - MLCPR - and am looking at upping my hours at a time when I feel my son is ready to start spending some time at nursery. I'm not sure whether it's because there are more women working in media and PR, or perhaps because one can now respond to emails while pushing a swing at the playground, but I really feel people have been very understanding that I need to work flexibly, and that I might need to schedule conference calls during nap times, for example! I suppose you could say the business was initially born out of circumstance rather than design, but I couldn't have designed it better. I feel really lucky to be able to work in this way - I'm learning new skills and growing professionally while still spending a good amount of time with my son."

Emma Taynton-Young, founder and managing director, Fireproof PR & mother of two

"I worked in the PR/Communications department for a financial services department when I had both my children and while they offered the usual maternity benefits, I still found there to be hurdles to me enjoying my pregnancy and maternity leave.

PR is a fast moving, demanding industry to be in – and this can be difficult to manage at the beginning of and towards the end of a pregnancy. As a senior PR professional in her mid-30s I had the backbone and experience to stand up for myself and juggle my career and my pregnancy, but I feel that this could be difficult for younger, more junior staff members.

I worried about taking time out from work, as clients, issues and media contacts change so quickly, and it takes time to build up a rapport with journalists and clients. I also think that the PR industry is very competitive and colleagues are more than happy to fill your shoes while you are away, and reluctant to hand things back when you return – who would want to invest their time and sanity in a 60-hour week creating and nurturing relationships with journos and clients, only to have to hand them over to someone else six months later?

In my experience I did not have to choose between a child and a career – I think that I have both. When I had my children I was the main breadwinner, so life was difficult on statutory maternity pay and no amount of planning prepared me for the shock of not earning any money. When it comes to choosing between work and family, timing is important and so is your relationship with your employer.

Flexi time and part time working can be difficult in our industry, because of the whole 24-7 media issue and the relationships you build, and need to build, with journalists. You might work part time in the office, but you will usually end up taking calls while you are at home being a mum!

I also think it can be difficult to take a career break for the same reasons. PR is a very time consuming job and if your employer does not have children themselves they will not know that your newfound parenting and juggling skills will actually benefit you (and them) in the workplace. The best employers will hire you for your skills and expertise as a PR professional and not penalise you for choosing to take time give your children a good start in life."

Lisa Mennie, co-founder, Skylark PR & single parent of a toddler

"I don't believe that women are faced with the choice of 'children or career.' I do, however, believe that women are faced with the choice of having children or working for some of the larger, established agencies. Many women with children find that the more flexible freelance route suits them very well and allows them to continue their career very successfully whilst juggling it with their children; so I don't necessarily think it's an 'either / or' situation. What I have seen, however, is certain firms clearly not geared to accommodate women with children, and I think that women working for this kind of business find themselves facing the dilemma of 'kids or career'. I've watched several colleagues - and close friends - working for large PR companies being effectively 'managed out of the business' because they've come back after maternity leave. Pretty much all these women have gone on to have very successful freelance careers, so I guess that ultimately, the firms have lost out in the long term by treating their talent in such an inflexible, hostile manner.

I don't think the industry as a whole is particularly supportive, and given that it's an industry with a high percentage of female employees, that's a real shame. The crux of the matter, however, is that, whilst our industry doesn't go to many real lengths to accommodate women coming back part-time; in general, clients don't care what your circumstances are as long as you get the work done and do it well. When I came back after having a baby, I was very fortunate that I had already set up my own business. My clients were supportive without exception - I could not have asked for more support, flexibility or consideration. By stark contrast, I have recently watched three close friends return from maternity leave to big employers to be treated appallingly, not by their clients but by their management. There seems to be a real ethos in the industry that your working status - i.e. whether you're part-time, or full-time, or just back from maternity leave, is more important than whether you actually get the work done and do it to a high standard. That's a pointless and outdated model and as long as it continues, large firms will continue to lose their pools of female talent. Of course not all agencies behave this badly, but it's certainly not uncommon in the Scottish marketplace. There is a long, long way to go."


  • 41 year-old mother of two (aged nine and ten).
  • Graduated in 1992 and worked in PR for a national telecoms company until 2002.
  • Self-employed in photographic industry until 2010.
  • Now working as a part-time administrator.

"I knew the day that I stopped to go on maternity leave that I had reached the end of an era. I did not realise however that I was walking away from my career, my financial security and a prosperous future.

I planned to return to my employer on a part-time, job share basis after taking my maternity leave. When my position was no longer available on my return due to business realignment, I was offered another part-time position at an equivalent level and pay. As I had taken my full entitlement of maternity leave (which included unpaid leave) this was all they were legally obliged to offer me.

Working a 20-hour week, five days over seven, with over two hours of commuting each day, meant that my childcare costs and travel would be more than I would earn. It was this reality that led me to start up in business with my husband in 2002. Being self-employed, I could work flexible, part-time hours to fit in around the children when they were infants and later when they went to nursery and school.

Although it meant a huge drop in income from my pre-baby wage (initially around 75%) this option allowed me to keep working, raise my family and most importantly, keep most of the money I earned. My childcare costs were minimal and I only paid for what I needed. As I worked less than 16 hours per week there was no government help with this and so I met these costs myself.

This suited us both and our joint earnings rose along with our business success. As the crunch began to take hold in 2008 our business could no longer support us and we both had to look for alternative employment.

As a returning mother, the search for decent, professional work has been soul destroying. Over the last 10 years I have not only improved on my previous skills, but now have a wealth of business experience and also a maturity and sound work ethic gained through being a parent. I have a new confidence in my ability and, contrary to the belief that working mums are less serious about their work, I think there's nothing more powerful than the need to support your family to make you even more focused than you were before. So why do I find that good part-time jobs in the most sectors are virtually non-existent? All I have lost is my ability to work an extra 17 hours a week – not my mind, my creativity or my ability.

Employers - or indeed the government - don't seem to appreciate the ocean of untapped and underutilised skills available from our work-hungry part of the population. I think employers need to change their mindset and break away from the rigid 'full-time' vs 'part-time' mentality of the jobs market. It would great to apply for jobs opened to the right calibre of candidate with the right experience and not to hit the 'full-time only' wall straight away.

As a qualified and experienced design graduate, I am now employed in an entry-level admin job on a part-time, entry level wage. Although I work a five day week, my commute means I'm out of the house only two hours less each day than my full-time employed husband. I take the kids to school, work, then pick them up on the way home. For this I earn less than two thirds’ the pro-rata rate of my husband and less pro-rata than I did in 1995.

The only opportunities open to me now are mostly low-paid, low skilled shift work. It's like being back on the bottom rung of the ladder and having to work my way back up. That's not a great prospect at 41 with only 20+ years of working life left. I now think that maybe working for 'nothing' and keeping on the ladder might have been the sensible option. But who's thinking long term when you've only just hit 30 and you feel like you're just starting off in life?

It often appears that those with family support for their childcare, or whose partners are high earners have managed to keep their careers while raising a family and are perhaps in a more fortunate position now. This raises all sorts of other questions - surely it shouldn't be a luxury to be able to take time out from your career to raise your family but something that is respected and honoured?

In spite of my education and spotless employment record, I feel like I'm one of a forgotten class whose skills are now wasted in stop-gap jobs. I'll certainly be encouraging my own daughter to hold on to her job at all costs when the time comes. I'd hate to see her being disadvantaged in the same way as so many of my friends and colleagues."

How is the tide beginning to turn? Is part-time work becoming a more realistic expectation for creative professionals? We asked London recruitment agency Women Like Us...

David Curtis, managing director, Women Like Us

"Women Like Us has 28,000 candidates on its books with a large number of them from a PR/marketing/design/digital background with over 10 years’ experience. All are looking for part-time work.

Despite the fact the creative industries are dominated by women in terms of numbers, our candidates report that, prior to coming to us, it was nearly impossible to find part-time and flexible jobs, using the usual recruitment channels.

An embedded long hours culture, majority client-facing roles and the need to be at events after work or on weekends has made finding a part-time job an extremely difficult thing to do.

Yet the tide is definitely beginning to turn. Women Like Us has recruited part-time staff for hundreds of forward-thinking creative employers across London, from SEO executives to PR managers to in-house designers. Most recently, we recruited a senior account director with specialist b2b experience as Head of Comms, working 21 hours per week for an award-winning digital agency in north London.

In our experience, employers who are used to providing creative services tend to take one of two approaches. Most default to full-time, as that is how they have always done things, and don’t think beyond it. Others take more imaginative approaches, ‘getting’ that by making a role 4 days per week rather than 5, they can attract from a wider talent pool, and get an experienced £60K director, for under £50K. Making it work with the wider team is all part of the challenge – and one that increasing numbers of HRs are starting to take up."


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