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Thinking out Loud | Is there an end to the endless juggle?

Shine’s Head of Brand & Marketing Tamsin James writes a love letter to those who have worked tirelessly to change the system for working parents.

I’m sure I speak for millions of women when I say that when I had a baby, I soon had a ‘ahaha’ moment, realising what everyone goes through – a full rollercoaster of physical challenges, emotions, feelings, responsibilities and overwhelm. The absolute slap-in-the-face shock of it all. 

Yet I vividly remember at the time of being on my first mat leave, the admiration and respect for the women who had their children before me. They had to hide their fertility and pregnancy struggles, weren’t able to access paid leave, had to carry the full responsibility of managing a family because their partners weren’t able to or didn’t want to. The struggle of balancing a full-time job around nursery bugs and constantly feeling an all-round let-down. When I had my babies, the world around me had moved on. 

The very important context here is that I come from a background in advertising, and now women’s personal and professional development – based in the UK. I am in a very privileged position, and whilst not perfect, the ad industry is too in a much better place than previously. Across much of the world and other sectors, progress is much slower. 

For example, the U.S. has less maternity leave benefits and protections than any other country in the OECD, with millions of working mothers entitled to zero weeks paid leave. 

The recent publication of the book Bully Market, is shining a light on the struggles for some working mothers in finance even within the last decade, with the author once being publicly mooed at for expressing milk in a dedicated room within her office. 

Across the board, in countries where childcare is charged at a premium, this impacts parents’ ability to work, and the burden falls mostly on women. A study this year of 27,000 parents of young children by Pregnant Then Screwed found that two thirds are paying the same, if not more for childcare than their rent or mortgage. 43% of mothers said childcare costs are making them consider leaving their jobs, and 40% are having to work less hours than they’d like to make the maths work.

My eldest child has just started Primary School, and once again, I’m experiencing another slap-in-the-face shocker. Up to now she has been in nursery each day, enough to cover my working hours. Now, that’s pretty much been cut in half, and all local wrap-around childcare solutions are fragmented or over-subscribed. I find myself in about 25 different WhatsApp groups that ping all day and all night, her social calendar is 200% more packed than my own, and important communications are delivered via screwed up letters I’m finding too late at the bottom of her bag. By day four she’s lost her brand new cardigan. I live my life with a constant feeling of owing people replies, answers, responses, decisions – and I am one week into the Autumn term!

How did the working parents I know manage this before flexibly working from home was acceptable? In the days where turning up 5 minutes late to your desk was a thing? How on earth did my advertising friends work on pitches??! What about Summer??? No wonder there was and is the ‘drop-off’ in mid-senior women that all companies face. It’s simply exhausting.

Where are we now?

I write this as a sort of love letter to everyone before me that has worked tirelessly to change the system for women like myself.

For the work from home believers: Working from home allows me to cut my commute from four hours a day (on a good day) of dropping off children and trains, to a 20 minute blast twice a day before I’m back at my desk. I start my working day relatively rested and calm. I am down the road should one of the kids be sent home ill or have an appointment, and it causes minimal disruption for my team and the business. On the days I have f2f meetings, I can make alternative arrangements for my children because I am in control of my working environment. You have literally given me 728 hours of my life back a year, thank you.

For the flexible working fighters: Being empowered to work flexibly means that I can ‘show up’ fully, regardless of the complexity of my personal life. If a parental commitment lands in my diary with a week’s notice, I can likely attend. For the days where I am struggling to find after school childcare, I am able to make up time when the kids are in bed. Quite simply I am able to try my best within a system that’s trying it’s best to support me. And knowing that removes the burden of guilt, the FOMO of not being there. My career isn’t stalling, it’s flexing, thank you. 

For the advertising industry: I left this world in 2019, but at Shine I’m fortunate to continue working with my old employer WPP as our client. They are an example of a company waking up to the need for gender equality (check out our report for 100 reasons why it matters) and taking tangible action to make work work for women. We estimate that over 3000 WPP employees have been through our Shine programme (including me in 2016!), and these women have gone back into the business afterwards to make the change we all want to see. As a result, 52% of senior managers globally are now women, and 83% of female employees believe the company is committed to creating an inclusive work culture. The industry is a much more human place to work than it was in previous years, and whilst not perfect, it is somewhere that women and working parents can progress to whatever ‘the top’ looks like for them. My friends that are still working in advertising are happier, healthier, more motivated and clearer on what they want from their careers. We thank you.

For the male Champions of Change: At nursery and school drop-off and pick-up, I would estimate that 50% of the parents are men. Certainly where I live just outside of London, it’s normalised. I had a conversation with one of them this week about the fact that he’s blocked out pickup time in his diary each day and told his team not to arrange meetings for then as he’s collecting his daughter. He tells me they were falling over themselves to accommodate him. We have long seen companies offer benefits such as shared parental leave, and uptake has been slow or men have been reluctant to talk about using them for fear of what it will look like and the impact on their careers. Thank you to the men out there that proudly don’t care ‘how this comes across’ – because for every one of you, a woman looks less of a liability.

What next?

At Shine we believe in taking positive action. We commit to sharing examples of companies and industries that are changing systems and cultures to ensure gender parity. We work with some fantastic men who are out there ‘doing the work’ alongside women, and we will not rest until gender equality is reached consistently across the board. As a moment in time, let’s celebrate that progress is being made, and I personally show an immense amount of gratitude to be able to reap the rewards. 

Share this article with your colleagues and the people around you and encourage a healthy discussion. And for anything else, follow us on social media or get in touch via email but remember when women thrive, men thrive, business thrives.  

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