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Employer Branding – Parent power

Madiha Sajid

Family-friendly working practices have become widely accepted, even at the highest level, demonstrating that it’s not only possible, it’s allowed and it’s do-able. All of which has given more women the confidence to ask for what they need from both work and home to progress their careers. Contributor Madiha Sajid, chair of Parents and Carers Together (PACT) Network, UCL

At a time when a third of employers are avoiding hiring women who they ‘fear’ might start a family soon; UCL, the first British university to admit women, is bucking the trend by making family-friendly policies and gender equality key components of its employer brand.

As London’s global university, UCL has been a flag bearer for equality since becoming the first university to admit women in 1868. Today, it has a diverse intellectual community of more than 13,000 staff and 38,000 students, from 150 different countries, and believes in hiring the best people, regardless of their gender, age or race.

One of the first organisations to set up a 50:50 Gender Equality Working Group, it has an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) team and a fair recruitment process, which ensures the gender, age or race of applicants is kept anonymous so they can be assessed purely on merit.

Yet despite this commitment to equality, and a clear target to increase the number of women in senior roles by five percent each year, it soon became apparent that there were a number of barriers preventing women in particular from progressing up the ranks once they became a parent or carer.

Barriers such as the huge cost of childcare in London, where UCL’s three campuses are based, and the stigma associated with flexible working, which can lead to the assumption that those working part-time or from home are somehow less committed or ambitious.

Feedback from a development programme ‘Springboard for Women’ revealed that many female employees felt like they were bad mothers because they had poor work-life balance. Meanwhile, others were feeling exhausted and overwhelmed from attending to young children during the night.

Recognising that these issues were likely to be widespread across the organisation and that valuable talent risked being lost if working parents’ concerns weren’t addressed, the EDI team set up the UCL Parents and Carers Together (PACT) network. The aim was to give those with parental or caring responsibility a formal representation within the university, along with more support to deal with the very challenges they were facing.

As well as tapping into its own research excellence, by inviting UCL academic community to give talks on everything from raising responsible teenagers to dealing with sleep deprivation, it also set about removing equality barriers in keeping with the belief that becoming a parent or caring for an elderly relative shouldn’t be an obstacle to achieving career success.

Parent & Professional, the career-coaching consultancy, was also brought in to provide maternity and career development workshops, to make it easier for employees to transition from work into parenthood and back again.

The maternity workshop created for expectant mothers recognised that the more UCL could do to help them cope with the huge changes they were about to make to their life, in a way that was supportive of their careers, the more likely they were to return, be productive and be committed to UCL.

As well as providing practical support on how to hand over their work before taking leave and use their ‘staying-in-touch days’ to best effect, so they maintained a good relationship with their manager and didn’t feel like a stranger when they returned, the workshops also provided lots of emotional support on issues ranging from body image to managing the impact of sleep deprivation.

Each workshop was conducted in small cohorts of 12-14 participants, so there was plenty time for meaningful interactions. Employees found the peer support and opportunity to talk openly about any concerns so valuable that most chose to set up their own informal groups such as on WhatsApp . Indeed, they typically continued to meet up and support each other, swapping tips (and even baby clothes) long after the initial workshop.

When it came to supporting maternity returners, another workshop was also designed to deal with emotional concerns such as feelings of guilt about leaving their child to return to work. It also addressed practical issues, such as identifying affordable childcare and support in the event that their child became sick, or if existing childcare arrangements broke down.

The most powerful aspect of the maternity returners workshops was the way the facilitators gave women the confidence to have a properly informed discussion with their manager about their options for working more flexibly and the importance of measuring their success according to outcomes, rather than hours worked.

This form of support was important for new mothers, as they returned to their work life, as it was important for them not to be overlooked for promotions and developmental opportunities. By allowing women returning from maternity leave to role-play having a meaningful conversation with their manager about what they could and couldn’t do, and how they wanted to continue to develop and be managed, the limitation of neither manager nor parent knowing what to ask for was removed.

Many delegates reported that it was the most open and useful conversation they had ever had with their manager, and that it had helped to build higher levels of trust. As a result, 81% of those who had attended the workshop said it had helped them to feel more in control of their career, while 84% said their manager supports their development.

Another positive outcome of the workshops was the way maternity returners were also coached to address internal barriers to career progression, such as self-doubt after an extended period of time out of work to look after a baby, or unhealthy and unproductive comparisons to those who were able to work longer hours.  

Without acknowledging and addressing these barriers, there was a risk that some women would end up returning to work only to feel like they were disappointing their family and themselves by their absence and disappointing colleagues because they couldn’t put in the same hours as before. Yet it was often the case that it wasn’t their childcare commitments that was the issue, but rather the way they were prioritising their day, getting sucked into reactively dealing with emails or not managing their time.

In total, 95% of the 159 people who went through 14 workshops said they would recommend the workshops.

The number of women progressing into senior roles has increased, while further work to revise the promotions criteria and eliminate ‘unconscious bias’ during interviews and performance reviews means the number of females promoted to associate professor, principle teaching fellows and researchers for 2019 is twice as many as for the previous year.

The major change involves ensuring that at least one person on every interview panel has been trained to recognise and challenge anyone making unconscious assumptions, such as assuming that someone who doesn’t have perfect English won’t be able to communicate effectively, or someone who wants to work part-time isn’t really committed.

As a result of all the initiatives, family-friendly working practices have become widely accepted, even at the highest level, with UCL’s vice-provost demonstrating that it’s not only possible, it’s allowed and it’s do-able. All of which has given more women the confidence to ask for what they need from both work and home to progress their careers. 

Women are now represented at the highest levels, with the appointment of the first female Chief Operating Officer (COO) earlier this year and a number of female heads of department. As a result, UCL has also reduced its gender pay gap from 19.5% to 15.9%, well below the national average, and won a prestigious Athena SWAN award for its commitment to advancing the careers of women in higher education and research.

At a time when a third of employers admit to being ‘afraid’ to hire women who might start a family soon and only one in ten offer any kind of maternity support1, UCL is proud to be known as a parent-friendly employer. The organisation is proactively promoting its policies and the support in place to new starters, so that they know the university will be there for them if they decide to start a family.

Having a parent-friendly workforce has helped UCL to become one of the top-ranked universities in the world and attract strong talent, despite stiff competition from the many other exceptional academic institutions in London. 

Employees know that they don’t have to conform to outdated working patterns or stop being a parent or carer once they go to work, as long as they’re delivering results and performing well. They know that if something comes up at home, they can talk to their manager about it and will be supported to balance their life outside of work with their job commitments.

With women still the primary carers within most families, it also means that a significant barrier to gender equality has been removed, in keeping with UCL’s belief that becoming a mother shouldn’t get in the way of career success. 

The university is continuing to provide maternity workshops and additional 1:1 career coaching from Parent & Professional, and has plans to improve the career prospects of other groups, in particular same-sex parents and employees looking after elderly parents.

1 Closing the gender pay gap: how to eliminate the barriers driving pay disparity, Parent & Professional, April 2019 

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