Women’s maternity rights often dominate the news – but even in a supportive company, where rights are respected, returning to work is not always easy, especially in the male dominated world of surveying. Marion Ellis BSc (Hons) MRICS shares how her experience has led her to champion support for other women in the industry.
It took my very own mini Arianna Huffington moment after returning to work from maternity leave to realise that something wasn’t right…
And if I was to give anyone advice about returning to work after having a baby, it would be to speak to your employer – and ask for help, if you need it.
I have two children and enjoyed the benefit of maternity leave twice. The first time I worried non-stop about how I would cope when I returned to work; a situation I’m sure a lot of women are familiar with. And yet when I look back, I couldn’t wait to get back into the office and get my ‘life’ back.
I started off part time and some days were hard, with ‘working mums’ guilt’ rearing its head often. But I always went to work and found a way to make things feel alright.
Half of Brits believe women receive fewer opportunities after returning from maternity leave. Fortunately, this was the opposite of my own experience. I had a six-year gap between my two children. During this time, as a Chartered Surveyor and member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), my career had progressed well and my responsibilities increased significantly.
With experience behind me, I was confident returning to work the second time would be plain sailing, like before, but that was not quite the case. Again, this is something that I know is a shared experience among women who return to work after having a second child.
Lack of sleep and travelling up and down the country took its toll. I found that although my most productive, coffee-fuelled hours were on the train, I still felt like I couldn’t make headway. I started to wonder: if I can’t keep on top, how can I progress? And if I can’t progress, then what’s the point? I felt at my lowest, least confident and, quite simply, exhausted.
My company was very understanding when I approached them asking for help in balancing my workload. We struck a balance, where I’m still full time but don’t need to travel as much and have more flexible hours. Working together helped to relieve the pressure I was putting on myself to be the perfect employee and parent. It gave me a clearer perspective and made me feel much more valued in the office.
While on maternity leave I met new parents and grew my network, which was invaluable support. I missed this when I returned to work, so I set up a Women in Surveying group, to support female colleagues up and down the UK – and I now mentor candidates on business and leadership development programmes.
Not everyone is so fortunate when returning from maternity leave; it can be terribly lonely, particularly if you’re in an industry like surveying where women make up around just 14% % of the profession.
Through greater understanding and initiatives such as the RICS Inclusive Equality Quality Mark (IEQM), a voluntary scheme to help organisations create more diverse and inclusive workplaces, we can help our sector to drive change and attract and retain our best employees.
Of course, this situation is not unique to surveying: there are women in all industries who feel they cannot ask their employers for help, and buckle under the pressure of being a working parent. So much so, that they end up leaving work completely, and this is something that needs to be addressed.
I’m fortunate and over the last year I’ve learned what career progression and leadership means for me. As a working parent and woman in an industry which is male-dominated, I’ve started to focus on things that add value to me and make a difference to people I care about.
A year ago, I’m not sure I could have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. Now I have the support system I need to continue to develop my career, and I know I am heading in a direction that makes me feel rewarded and valued at a company where I can make a difference.
About the author: Marion Ellis BSc (Hons) MRICS is Head of Customer Experience for Countrywide Surveying Services