Guest Blog by Katie Matthews
Katie Matthews, Co-head of Sport & Fitness at The PHA Group, discusses returning to work following her second child, why companies should actively support parents returning to work and sharing her job role to balance her career and her family
I was asked recently what the biggest challenge I have had to overcome in my career has been, and I was able to answer without hesitation. Returning to work after having a baby and trying to juggle the demands of motherhood and my job has been, by a country mile, the hardest thing I have had to deal with since entering the workplace over a decade ago. The hardest part, for me, was coming to terms with my new identity as a mum and the impact this had on all the other aspects of my personality, not least the ‘career woman’ part of me (and in truth, it is something I am still adjusting to). But beyond the emotional challenges that come with entering the world of parenthood, clearly there are huge practical challenges to deal with when it comes to returning to work after having a baby.
The phrase ‘having it all’ frustrates me a lot, because I think it paints an unrealistic picture of what is possible. It suggests that you can be an ever-present mum whilst having an amazing, unfaltering career. And that just isn’t the case. Of course you can be a mum and have a career, but there are choices and sacrifices that have to be made whichever way you cut it. The important thing is creating a set up that works for you personally, to enable you to get as close to ‘having it all’ as possible, given your own, unique set of circumstances.
I read somewhere that the best thing a woman can do for her career if she wants to balance it with a family is to marry a supportive husband, and I couldn’t agree more (shout out to the very supportive ‘Mr Matthews’… even though technically Matthews is my name and not his). But a very close second on the list is having a supportive employer and supportive colleagues. Of course this should be the norm, but I know from the experiences of (far too) many of my friends that this is not the case. I have heard – from friends – numerous examples of women feeling like they are being forced out of their roles because their employers refuse to find ways to make it easier for them to juggle their work and home life.
This is of course madness. There is a real issue with female talent leaving work altogether after having children because they can’t find a way to make it work and that is such a huge waste of knowledge and experience. Companies should be actively looking at ways to help their female staff juggle parenting and their careers, rather than stick to a formula which will force many women out of work.
I recently read an article about a female member of staff at Haven being offered a senior role while she was pregnant. The member of staff was prepared to turn down the role because it would have meant missing out on too much time with her young family. Instead of looking elsewhere for another employee however, Haven decided to give her use of the company helicopter to move her around the country quicker, and to ensure she was able to get home for her children’s bed time.
Whilst I can’t say I’m currently enjoying use of the company helicopter, I can say that I have an incredibly supportive employer who have helped me find a way to balance the demands of being a mum to two very small children with an also demanding job as co-head of the Sport &Fitness team at a leading PR agency. Of course the set up works for them too. They have kept my ten years of experience within the business instead of seeing it walk out the door with my baby bump, and benefit from the increases in my efficiency which are, I say very confidently, a natural by-product of becoming a parent.
The ’co’ in my job title is one of the changes we decided to make when I returned to work after my second child. There is no getting around the fact that, with two small children at home, I needed to free up some more of my time, and sharing the responsibilities that come with running a busy department and team of people was a great way to do that. It works particularly well in this situation as the person I share the role with has been a colleague for close to nine years now, so we know each other very well and are very used to the ways we both work. We also have different strengths which benefit the department in different ways. I know where his input is invaluable and I think I’m right in saying he feels the same about me. There are no egos involved either, so there is no vying for seniority. We just both channel our skills and experience where they are most needed and know and trust that the other one will do the same.
I am writing this from home, which has been the other big change since returning to work. A shift in my hours, and some more flexibility in terms of when I travel in to the office, has meant that I am able to share nursery drop offs and pickups with my husband. It’s important to me that the flexibility works both ways though, so if I am needed at a meeting or presentation on a day I would normally be working from home, I make every effort to be there. If I am expecting my employer to be flexible and allow me to work from home when it’s possible, then I want to make sure I am flexible in return.
These adjustments to my role and the way I work have made it possible for me to get as close to ‘having it all’ as I can, and I would encourage all employers to look at ways that they can ensure their employees have the opportunity to do the same. Losing talented, experienced women from the workplace because they have become mothers shouldn’t be an inevitability, especially when a little creativity, flexibility and trust is often all that’s required to make it work for all concerned.