How to make sure that flexible working arrangement doesn’t leave you stuck in a rut

Just read a piece in HR News, saying that 80% of working mothers feel stuck in the job they’re in because they couldn’t achieve the level of flexibility they have elsewhere. The same research also showed that 57% say their career hasn’t progressed since having children.

Forgive me for not being surprised.

In my experience, women with children are so desperate to achieve any form of flexibility, they will focus on that, first and foremost, ahead of such trivial matters as development and promotion. It’s not uncommon, either, for women with children to define themselves as mothers first and foremost. Just head over to Instagram and see how many have “Mummy, Momma, Mother, Mum … ” in their bio.

I can’t tell you how many times I receive emails saying something along the lines of “I’m a mum of three … (insert names and ages) …. and I’m looking for part time work, can you help”. As intros go, it’s not very compelling. Being a mother doesn’t differentiate you in any way.

Add to this the typical female traits of failing to negotiate, expecting to be recognised for doing good work, saying “Yes” too often, needing to be 100% sure you can do 100% of a job before you take it on, imposter syndrome and the like and you have a perfect storm of attitudes and behaviours that leave women stuck.

Whilst I’m not letting organisations off the hook – and yes, changes to legislation would be handy too – I’m much more interested in what women can do to help themselves. And each other. Because we’re all in this together ladies.

So here are a few suggestions.

  1. Remember your career is LONG. Think like a chess master and play the long game.
  2. Think about what “winning” looks like. Where do you want to be in 5 years? In 10 years? What do you anticipate your working life being like when your children are teenagers? Or older? What sort of influence and impact do you want to have? What will work mean to you?
  3. Be more Emily. When doing research for my book, She’s Back, I spoke to Emily Khan, a consultant at PwC. She’d managed to arrange a very complicated flexible work arrangement which allowed her to remain in her job at a time when she thought childcare commitments would make it not possible. She made sure everyone knew what hours she was working, when and where. One day, her line partner gave her some wise counsel. She took her advice and her career began to move again.

“Stop talking about your hours and start talking about your ambition.”

4. Be RUTHLESS about your time. Make sure you’re spending your most creative, productive time on your most valuable tasks – the things that YOU are paid to deliver and up which YOU will be judged and rewarded. It’s not selfish, it’s sensible. That tendency to say, “Yes” and to help everyone else out – just be careful you’re not spending too much time helping others look good.

5. Channel Annabel. Annabel worked for me some years ago. When my second in command told me she was pregnant, Anna was the next person to see me, explaining how I needn’t worry about getting maternity cover as she was capable of stepping up into the role. She set out how she would approach it, how her role could be backfilled and also set out what she would expect in return. A salary increase and promise to be considered for promotion in the next round.

I left that particular role in part because a couple of years later I was told I would never be promoted to partner as I was in a non-fee earning role. Guess who stepped into my shoes and is now, of course, a partner.

There’s a Yorkshire saying “You get nowt bah’t asking”.

6. Be prepared to walk away. Without getting overly political, Boris might be wrong on many things but he’s right about one thing. If you’re going to negotiate you have to be prepared to walk away. There ARE other roles out there and many more organisations WILL offer flexibility. But only if you show them your value and talk about what value will add first and leave the “when, where and how” for the second conversation.

At the Reignite Academy, we’re working with lawyers who have found themselves stuck in a rut, working below their potential and 90% have managed to negotiate some form of part time and/or agile working arrangement, in a sector notorious for its long hours, “full-time” culture. If they can do it, so can you.

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