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A more flexible approach to mums can make work a better place - for everyone

Tas Bhanji

Last month, PRCA Council member Tas Bhanji caught up with Aceil Haddad, joint head of PR for the campaign Pregnant Then Screwed and founder of MATT PR. Here are some of Tas’ thoughts from the event - you can watch a full video at the end of the page.

Pregnant Then Screwed was launched on International Women’s Day (8 March) 2015 by Joeli Brearley, who was sacked by voicemail just two days after announcing her pregnancy.

Having myself been made redundant while on maternity leave, I’m grateful for the campaigning, training and various pieces of work it does, and was delighted to speak to Aceil and share learnings with attendees as this event, at part of my work on the PRCA Council. Here are a few key takeaways.

PR’s ‘presenteeism obsession’ shifting

Not enough is being done to support working mothers across the business world, and PR too suffers from an endemic attitude of inflexibility around working hours: the expectation that we work overtime for no pay, because that’s the done thing.

There is however a shift in mindset and expectations, and it has been accelerated by lockdown living. Aceil suggested that “collective trauma” of living through this tumultuous time means that the playing field will have been somewhat levelled, by empathy rooted in that shared experience, when working life reverts to more normal patterns.

“We’ll have to reintegrate ourselves into that space. So there’ll be anxiety, nervousness, imposter syndrome… we’re all going to feel that. Men as well. We’re all going to go back and have that feeling of what it’s like to be [back] off maternity leave,” she suggested.

Steps you can take

As we return, there is an opportunity to do things differently, and better. Aceil had three tips on how to be a better employer of mothers.

The first is looking at ways to implement flexible working across the office - not just for returning mothers, or just for women, but for all your people. You don’t want to get into a scenario where there’s one rule or expectation for some, and another for everyone else.

The second is to create lean-in groups - a group of people from across a business who come together to address a specific issue and look at how to tackle it, providing the business with insights it might not otherwise understand.

The third is mentoring - creating a scheme internally will help people to have the conversations and support they need.

Communicate, be consistent, be human

Underpinning those steps, or any other measures you put in place, should be three things: communication, consistency, and humanity.

“I know this sounds really mad, especially for the PR industry, but communication is key. How can you work with your employees, how can you get the best out of them… where is the flexibility on both sides?,” Aceil said. “If somebody wants something, how can you make that work for you? I want to be at my child’s school plays because my mum never was, because she didn’t have that flexibility.”

When I came back from maternity leave, at first I was absolutely delighted to come back, to use my brain again and get out of the house. About a year in, I started feeling guilty about not spending enough time with my daughter. Mothers, and others, should feel able to have open discussions about their motivations and needs not just at set moments like starting a job, returning from maternity leave or whatever else, but on an ongoing, long-term basis.

“I can’t reiterate this enough - when we address these issues we need to do so as a whole. If it becomes just a women’s thing, it becomes just another excuse,” Aceil said - these things need to be consistent across an organisation.

“I don’t think management is as hard as people think it is,” she said. “It’s a simple thing - understanding people’s workloads, understanding where their strengths and weaknesses lie… it all goes back to being human.”

I think that injecting a bit more empathy and humanity into the world of work - something which the pandemic has often encouraged us to do - would go a long way. And I think it has to be about us as employees being allowed to be ‘human’, rather than it being about things you get as a woman, or as a mother, as that turns us mothers into a group seen as having special privileges.

Of course, making all that happen does require understanding regulation - businesses can look to resources on Pregnant Then Screwed’s website, or other places such as ACAS for help with this. But it can also start with better, more human conversations.