The delicate balancing act between career and motherhood is back in the spotlight with Sarah Jessica Parker’s new film “I Don’t Know How She Does It” released today. It documents the trials and tribulations of Kate Reddy, a fund manager with two small children, who, in the end, sadly found that she could not “have it all”. She gives up her career and moves to the country for the sake of her children whom she rarely saw and to save her relationship with her husband.The question is how much has changed since Allison Pearson wrote the book nearly a decade ago upon which the film is based. Is it more possible now to successfully combine career and family? I think it is, even in the City. However, women need to think carefully about their career choice early on if they want to have children and choose their employer, not to mention their partner carefully, if they want to avoid Kate’s experience.

Legislative progress

The plight of working mothers has improved greatly in the Noughties due to the raft of family friendly employment legislation which has come into force. Working parents can now request flexible working arrangements. Part-time workers are protected against discrimination. There is the right to take unpaid parental leave, maternity leave and pay has been increased; we now have paternity and adoption leave and there will be a shared system of parental leave in the near future, as well as having the right to time off for dependents (i.e. emergency leave.)

Employers

However it is important to find an employer that not only pays lip service to these family friendly rights, but one that also has a supportive, understanding culture. Some employers still consider working one day a week from home to be “part-time” work. Others have used the economic crisis as a veil for earmarking working mothers with flexible working arrangements for redundancy.

Employers need to focus on the results working mothers deliver, rather than cultivate an environment of ‘presenteeism’, which can indirectly discriminate against working mothers. I see countless examples of working mothers who multi-task effectively and are good at focussing, prioritising and meeting deadlines. They are often more effective than employees without children, who don’t need to leave the office by a certain time due to childcare responsibilities.

The skills parents obtain through raising their children can be utilised to great effect in the workplace. Talking a two year old out of a temper tantrum has certainly made me a better negotiator!

Many employers recognise the benefits of a more diverse workforce, from the loyalty and costs savings to be derived from retaining working mothers who are highly skilled, through to the appeal to clients and customers who want to do business with companies which share their values. But it’s still not a consistent picture. It often starts at the top, as we know, which is why the effort to get more women onto the Boards of FTSE 100 companies can only be a good thing.

The future

I am a fervent supporter of the increased rights and protection for working fathers in terms of legislation, not only from a family perspective but also because I think it will help to neutralise gender imbalances in the workplace. Fathers who take extended paternity leave or shared parental leave may well now face similar issues to working mothers who return to work, in terms of adverse impact on career progression, pay and bonuses meaning that issues which have predominantly affected working mothers may increasingly become “parental” issues in the future.

The playing field between the genders at interview stage may also level out, as men may no longer be seen as a “safe bet” during the interview process, if there is an equal risk of them taking six months’ additional paternity leave, to women of childbearing age taking six months’ maternity leave. Fathers in the City, as well as other sectors increasingly want to be hands on with their children and employers will need to respond.

They used to say that ‘behind every good man is a good woman.’ Nowadays it’s equally true that “alongside every successful working mother is a supportive hands on father and partner, preferably one with a forward thinking employer, who has flexible working arrangements for dads too.” We have considerable legislative, technological and societal-cultural changes to thank for that and surely the Kate Reddy’s of this world, who didn’t quite get the balance right, have made many of us realise that there must be a better way.

This piece was first published in HR Magazine online in September 2011.