Is it a radical idea that parents with young children should be supported to progress in their careers? Apparently so, according to the Observer and Nesta’s New Radicals list of change-making organisations and individuals, published earlier this year. Verena Hefti made it onto the list, as the founder of Leaders Plus, a new social enterprise dedicated to enabling leaders with children to develop in their careers.
The leadership gender gap in the workplace is well documented in many different ways, and even in female-dominated sectors the position is still bad. Take teaching for example: two thirds of the workforce are women but just a third of secondary school heads are female. Women can drop off the leadership pipeline for many reasons that are not their choice – lack of flexible working, uninformed line managers, and a perception they are less committed to their work are all contributing factors*. These don’t just affect women, either. For example, a man’s request for flexible working is twice as likely to be rejected as a woman’s.
Long before Leaders Plus made the distinguished New Radicals list, I had joined the fellowship programme, which began in March this year. Many will know I was away from Action Tutoring from June 2017 on maternity leave, following the arrival of my little boy, Joshua. I came across Verena and her work after a friend recommended an event she was putting on for CEOs on parental leave. At the time, Joshua was four months old, but the invite clearly said babies were welcome, so off I went, feeling rather chuffed for getting myself plus baby into London through rush hour and looking vaguely respectable. Verena’s background is in the education sector so we immediately had a lot to talk about.
It was here that I first encountered the Leaders Plus fellowship that Verena was about to launch – a nine-month programme for those passionate about both their families and careers. I knew straight away I wanted to join and that it could be a huge help to me, and hopefully to Action Tutoring, as I transitioned back into work. The fellowship was open to both men and women – sadly, no men applied to be part of it, but I hope that will shift in future years.
The programme kicked off with a launch event in the House of Commons, hosted by Tulip Saddiq MP. 60 parents and 50 babies were present, setting the tone that having babies along to sessions was totally acceptable. Have nursery rhymes ever been sung in the House of Commons before? They have now: halfway through, we took a short pause in the panel discussion to sing ‘The Little Green Frog.’
Following the launch, the last few months have seen numerous workshops to help the fellows think through their visions for both their work and family life and to plan for how to achieve this. Initially, Verena planned to run one cohort, but due to the sheer volume of applications, two cohorts of 15 women from a range of sectors and organisations – including corporates, the BBC, the NHS and charities – took part. We have all been given a mentor, received training in practical tools (including a fantastic session with an expert sleep consultant!), coached each other and cried together – the bonds and friendships formed have been swift and deep. We all had in common a heartfelt and deep love for our children and a passion for our work, whatever the sector. A weekend session was facilitated to bring along partners and another was held with line managers – both of whom will be key players in supporting us to achieve our visions. The final event included presenting a number of recommendations to sector leaders that can practically help more leaders with babies to progress.
The programme had the added benefit for Action Tutoring of helping us to recruit our first Head of Finance and Operations. Heather Taylor had been working in finance for a large charity for a while and was looking to gain wider experience in a smaller organisation . When she heard about our role and our openness to flexible working, she was keen to apply. The two of us have babies born just eight days apart, we both work four days a week and are lucky to have partners who have also been able to work four days a week to facilitate our work-life balance (or ‘blend’ as I recently heard it called). Every family works things out differently and what’s right for one family may well be different for another, but for both of us, this is a great set-up.
The charity sector does relatively well on gender issues and has more women in leadership positions than many other sectors can claim, as was recently documented by Third Sector. However, given it’s already bucking the trends, I would argue that the sector needs to continue to take a lead in this area and look at how it can encourage leaders with young families to develop, to ensure a strong pipeline for the future. I’m delighted that Action Tutoring as an organisation could be involved in this inaugural cohort for Leaders Plus, as well as being grateful for the many personal benefits it has brought to me.
So, hats off to Verena for starting this movement. Hopefully we will reach a point where it is not considered a radical idea for parents to be supported to progress in their careers, but for now, I’ve been inspired and equipped by this programme to be both a better leader for Action Tutoring and a better mother to Joshua. Thank you, Verena and Leaders Plus!
*A recent study on public perception showed 4 in 10 people think women are less committed to their work once they’ve had a baby: www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Parents-Work-and-Care-2016.pdf
Susannah Hardyman, CEO of Action Tutoring
Action Tutoring is grateful to Impetus-PEF for funding Susannah’s placement on the programme.
Left: CEO, Susannah Hardyman with her son, Joshua.
Right: Head of Finance, Heather Taylor with her daughter, Iris.