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Agency life as a single mum

Genevieve Roberts / Picture: Joe Sinclair

Genevieve Roberts believes that being a single mum has made her better at her agency job. Here, the Beyond associate creative director explains why, urging the industry to give more single parents a chance.

It was the afternoon of the agency Christmas party and I was working at home when my daughter started being sick. Two thoughts crossed my mind as I raced to pick her up. One, is it norovirus? And two, how will I get my Secret Santa gift to my colleague now?

I texted colleagues and resigned myself to the fact that, as a single mum of young children, work nights out are only ever going to be tentative plans. Beyond is a friendly place and it’s a shame to miss out on the sociable side of work, but exchanging beers for bedtime stories is a trade I’ve made willingly and would do so again a million times over. Instead, I’ve made peace with building friendships with the teams I work with and reassure myself that these count.

I’m not the only mum working at Beyond, nor the only single parent, but we’re a rare breed. I don’t know whether that’s because the rhythms of agency life have a reputation for clashing with the inflexibility of childcare, which encourages parents to move client-side, or simply because a lot of people working at agencies see parenthood as something to consider when they get old (one strategist explained to me recently that an audience was elderly because they ‘aren’t even digital natives’).

It would be great if there were more of us though, not only because I’d welcome the community from other single parents, but also because being a solo mum has made me better at my job. My negotiation skills have improved hugely: you try reaching an agreement with a three-year-old who’s decided not ‘winning’ the stairs is heartbreaking when you’re already at the top of them. I have no one else to fall back on when charm, cajoling and excitement get me nowhere.

In the course of getting my two children ready for the morning, I entertain, comfort and – stairs excluded – avoid potential pitfalls. At work I’m more openly nurturing; it’s not just my children who I want to see learn and grow. I also have more ambition than before becoming a parent because it is my responsibility alone to provide for my daughter and son.

My previous role as a journalist on a national newspaper had instilled a discipline that stops me ever missing a deadline. I’m still just as conscious of timelines, but now I’m more organised and tend to want to plan further in advance than colleagues who don’t have to anticipate that a middle of the night toddler crisis could derail late-working. I often edit pitch decks at the last minute and each time I give a plea that next time I get to see it earlier. I don’t expect I ever will; I remember thriving on the closeness of a deadline too.

I’m fortunate that agencies are slowly, belatedly understanding that far from writing off people once they’ve had children, they bring more value to work. Charlie Lyons, co-founder of Beyond, says he’s learnt huge amounts from looking after his three-year-old son. “We see parents in our agency using enhanced skills that they’ve learnt at home,” he says. “I now have a greater instinct to help other people and am more in tune with how they are feeling. I’m more intuitive, patient, caring, mature – and constantly creative in getting my son to eat vegetables and go to sleep. These life skills make me better at my role.”

But there’s further we can go. There’s still unconscious bias towards single parents in many agencies. On the plus side, diversity and inclusion is really important to Beyond and I’ve found colleagues open to a dialogue about areas in which the agency can improve and proactive in making changes.

When I speak to single parent friends working in other industries, I realise how much of the problem is that our society hasn't progressed to reflect the realities of modern families: our nursery system is the second most expensive in the world. Meanwhile, 90% of people worldwide – men and women – hold a bias against women, according to a report by the UN that measures how social beliefs obstruct gender equality in politics, work and education across 75 countries.

One area in which things have changed more abruptly than I’d ever have imagined is flexibility. It’s key for single parents: the more time I save on commuting, the more I can spend involved in agency work, without the stress of the journey. I’ve always been really fortunate in being able to work flexibly, but this isn’t the case for everyone in our industry. Before lockdown, the UK Government Equalities Office published a report on Women’s Progression in the Workplace that said “flexible workers may suffer negative career consequences and a flexibility stigma”.

Remote working during this year’s lockdown was unsustainably hard for parents who’ve been juggling the role of untrained teacher to their children. But it’s also given all creative industries the chance to finally catch up with what single parents already knew: you don’t have to be in an office to do your best work. This horrific period has meant that people don’t need to negotiate flexible working, nor be seen as an exceptional case. The pressure of presenteeism – something at which British people excel – has disappeared overnight. At Beyond, the conversation is now on outcomes over time, about what you achieve and being accountable to your teammates, not on clocking hours.

For parents, particularly those with solo charge of their children, it has levelled the playing field and is a leap closer to career equality. It has also had a huge effect on people with disabilities who no longer have to feel that work is doing them a ‘favour’ by having them. I hope that, in years to come, flexible working will be a given and prejudice towards single parents will be history. I’m delighted to have a chance to play my little part in paving the path for the next generations.

Genevieve Roberts is associate creative director of Beyond and a single mother to two children. She is author of Going Solo: My choice to become a single mother using a donor, published by Little, Brown.

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