I went to a conference at work recently – 60 or 70 senior people from my part of our organisation. One of the topics was how to improve the proportion of senior women (as an aside, I found it pretty amusing that all the men at my table were shocked by the statistics – 16% women at our level – when we were at a conference with (gasp) 16% women).
We had a fabulous speech from one woman who had made it to very senior levels (more senior than nearly everyone in the room) which outlined a few home truths. The most fascinating thing, for me, is that this was her second time with our organisation. The first time, she had left in disgust after coming back from maternity leave to a nothing job, with no desk, no job title, and being made to feel completely invisible as the organisation couldn’t figure out what to do with someone part time. Her children are now older, so she is willing to work a very full time job (although she takes more school holidays), and more importantly, she has the self confidence to demand what she wants out of a role – self confidence that isn’t easy to have coming back from maternity leave somewhat sleep deprived. But she did a lot of soul searching before coming back to an organisation that had basically discarded her 10 years before.
The powerful point about her story for me, was the importance of thinking about stages of life when thinking about flexible work. The woman who is looking for a very part time role now is probably a great asset to an organisation now. But she also has the potential to be a much greater asset later – her children will grow older, she will have more headspace to take on something more challenging and full time. And if you make it hard for her now, you’re not going to reap that reward later when she is ready.
We had a brainstorming session, and so many people said that they were all for flexible work, but the roles in their teams just couldn’t be done that way. It is much harder to organise roles part time than full time. It takes more imagination. But you expand your talent pool enormously – in the short term a bit, but in the long term an enormous amount.