As the nation learned the happy news about the Royal bun in the oven, the media were quick to raise the question around Will’s career and the changes he might want to make to be more around as a parent ( Being an RAF pilot and being away from home weeks on end somehow does not seem to be the ideal situation for a father, even if the other person in the household is not employed and (presumably) additional help with childcare is not a (financial) issue. If this is a challenge for Will & Kate, it surely is a challenge for the rest of working parents, not to mention for consultants who are also away from home as a matter of routine…

Having recently returned from maternity leave myself, I seem to have become the token recipient for a lot of “working mothers” conversations. Usually with other women and they go along the lines of: isn’t it difficult, how do you ensure little Peter/Sarah/Charlie gets to/from the nursery in time, how useless is your husband in packing the nappy bag (“he will do it if I tell him exactly what needs to go in so might as well do it myself!”) and how do you deal with THE GUILT…..and equally THE PRESSURE of wanting to do a good job on both home and work front…. and feeling you’ll never quite manage either.

Since coming back, I have observed and pondered over two key questions. Why doesn’t combining parenthood with a professional life as a consultant in general seem equally important, challenging and difficult for men? Perhaps Will is paving the way for a new era, where fathers are finally being taken into the equation when solving the combining-work-with-family equation, but on the whole my male colleagues are very quiet about the subject.

Having said that, the second question I have been thinking about is why is it that although women seem to talk about it a lot, it’s the men that seem to be more open and creative in terms of thinking of solutions? Recently, two different male colleagues have approached me with innovative ideas about how to make it easier for people to combine parenthood with a career. Both are in very senior positions and both have surprised me with their (unsolicited) ideas around what organisations can do to make it easier for women to continue their career.

  • One of them recognised for instance that a lot of valuable, informal conversations and networking opportunities usually happen after 5, which means a lot of women miss out as they’re often the ones picking up the children. His suggestion was to shuffle things up a bit and plan in those same activities during the day, recognising it is an important part of our work. Now it could be that he is just looking forward to long leisurely lunches but he does have a point.
  • The other was talking about how to retain women in senior positions and had a very apt observation. Rather than seeing the responsibilities that come with a senior position as a hindrance, we should use them to our advantage. In his words, once you get to a senior position, people are quite willing to work around your schedule so why don’t we invest more in the women we want to retain and put them on an accelerated career progression plan so they will be in a better position to call the shots in managing their diary.

The statistics though confirm that there is still some ground to cover there in the UK. A recent report by the Resolution Foundation looked at employment amongst women with children and compared to the top 5 performers in this area (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark) the UK is 8 percentage points behind. Also just over 50% of mothers with school-age children work fewer than 20 hours a week compared to the top performer’s average of 30%. And with part time working in senior positions still not very common, the UK has one of the highest part time pay penalties in the EU.

Even in my home country, the Netherlands, things seem easier. Around 60% of women are now in paid employment and almost half of the working population in the Netherlands works part time (including 25% of the men), which is the highest in the EU. I have seen the effects of this first hand. Most of my friends back home share parenthood equally with their (male) partners. Both work 4 days, both are comfortable setting the boundaries at work around drop off and pick up times and none of this seems to impact careers. Perhaps it’s the famous Dutch directness that makes my friends pipe up and ensure their hubbies do their bit, but the society as a whole seems to be more relaxed about part time working and more geared towards social and gender equality.

So what could help the UK significantly improve working lives of parents with young children? According to the report mentioned previously, three things:

  • Greater access to affordable childcare
  • Access to more flexible employment opportunities
  • Access to well paid, high skilled part time employment

HR has a role to look beyond simply part time employment to provide a greater range of flexible working options such as compressed hours, home working and term time only hours. And the time feels right to do this. The modern digital workplace has removed many of the barriers to remote working. Many organisations are also making a real shift to creating a performance culture where output is much more important than simply doing the hours. It should no longer matter whether we do our work in what used to be considered “normal working hours” or in the middle of the night. Besides, in the modern, global organisations, the middle of the night here is likely to be the middle of the working day in some other part of the connected world so there is always something to get on with!

To really make things equal, these options need to be offered to fathers as well as mothers so families can jointly balance parenting commitments. In the meantime, I think it would also help if women start to apologise less, be more creative and take a helping hand where it is offered. Because there is a lot of willingness to make things work if we bother to listen and don’t feel like we need to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. He WILL learn how to pack the nappy bag if we trust him to do it and don’t scrutinise his every move. And equally, organisations are often a lot more understanding than we think and willing to be flexible to make things work for valuable employees – be it men or women.
The time is right to see the obstacles for what they are: sometimes really there, but sometimes remnants from a past we have as a society outgrown – a bit like a pre-pregnancy wardrobe really…

Barbara van der Heijden
Capgemini Employee Transformation lead