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Women at the top: How one working mum conquered barriers to a senior-level career

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The burning issue of gender diversity continues to be discussed across the HR world and a recent report from Santander is adding fuel the heated debate.

The bank’s study of 2,000 women reveals that businesses in the UK are facing a ‘brain drain’ among female workers with around one in four (26%) female professionals saying they changed careers after starting a family to balance home and work life. The same proportion moved into roles that were less professionally rewarding and 6% claimed that they have given up work entirely.

Almost two thirds of working mums said that employers should guarantee that women can work in the same role they had before children, but with added flexibility.

So it seems mum are willing to continue working hard, yet our businesses have a great deal more to do to retain talented female staff.

Lynn Walters, mum of two and co-founder and director of the regional recruitment agency Pure Resourcing Solutions (Pure), thinks women need to also take responsibility for their own career progression. Reaching senior-level positions as a woman in HR and other sectors is not an easy task and requires a flexible attitude, determination and self-belief.

Finding her own solution to challenges that defeat many working women, Lynn set up Pure with two partners in 2002.  Focusing on Accountancy, HR, Marketing, Financial Services and Office Support recruitment (from junior to executive-level) Pure has grown from its head office in Cambridge to local branches in Chelmsford, Norwich and Ipswich.

With the odds apparently stacked against working mums, how did Lynn deal with the challenges of balancing family life with building a career and a business? Read on to find out.

What was your experience of being a mum and employee before starting Pure?

Before setting up Pure I worked for a large plc – initially in the recruitment division. After having my children, now 11 and 13, I moved into the commercial division specialising in business process outsourcing. When my children were very young I had the opportunity to work on a major outsourcing project, but it involved five trips to India over a six month period. With two young children, the timing was terrible but it was a wonderful career development opportunity and I wanted to demonstrate my dedication to the job. So with the full support of my husband I took on the project. However, the trips were emotionally draining and with all of my colleagues being men they made no allowance for my personal situation.

Looking back, I perhaps should have turned down the project, but opportunities like that don’t often come along and I am glad of the experience. However, as far as I recall, there was no flexibility and I did not expect it from my employer. It was all or nothing.

When you set up Pure, how did you balance the demands of family and being a business owner?

In reality setting up a business is not an easier option – even with my two partners, Gill Buchanan and Ian Walters. However, we all shared the same values and wanted to start a company to have more control over our working lives, so we supported each other. Nowadays both Gill and I work four days in the office, giving us both a good work-life balance.

Have your own experiences as a working mum influenced how you run the company?

Absolutely! All partners were determined to set up a company that provided staff with flexibility and support; be they working parents or people with outside interests. One third of our employees work part-time; for example, two consultants in our Norwich office are job-sharing. But for flexing to really be successful in the fast-paced recruitment industry, the flexible attitude has to be mutual

Some of our most successful consultants may work part-time but they are also prepared to take calls and check emails at home when necessary. But if they want to leave the office early for school sports day or another important event, they know they have the support to do so.

Also, we recently ran seminars to share ideas about how local businesses can support their female staff. Delegates really got involved, including a senior HR professional offering to mentor up and coming female HR staff, which is an excellent outcome. An interesting issue that came out of the seminars was that women lack confidence in terms of advancing their career, while men seem to not suffer the same issue. I think this is a serious matter that needs to be addressed by both women and employers, if senior positions are to become a lot more gender diverse.

During your career have you noticed a shift in employers’ approach to flexible working?

Yes. Flexible working is definitely more common now than it was when Pure launched. However, it is also becoming more widely recognised that what works for one company may not work for another. In fact, in the seminars we also advised senior professionals to exchange ideas to help each other to adapt and thrive.

Interestingly, one of the more traditional clients in science research attracts significantly more women than the industry norm. Not only do they promote a flexi-time arrangement, but they use maternity leave  as an opportunity to broaden their employees’ skills by seconding them to the vacant position.

So, what advice can you offer to fellow female professionals who want to progress to more senior roles?

First of all, you must really want to progress if you are juggling family and a career. It is not easy, but it can be very rewarding and worthwhile, and I am a firm believer in acting as a role model for my children.

If your personal circumstances change, such as a pregnancy or returning to work, in my opinion, you need to be honest with your boss; treat your employer with the same respect that you expect in return. When discussing flexible working arrangements, think about it from the business perspective as well as from yours; for flexible working to make sense, it needs to suit both parties.

In addition, getting a mentor can give women increased self-assurance, which is particularly important after returning from a period of extended leave. A mentor’s support can help them stand up for their opinions, apply for senior roles and generally raise their professional profile.

Also, if your usual industry is not open to supporting women, look for employment in sectors other than your own. Other industries may have more opportunities for women who want to move up the ladder because they know they have as much to offer as their male counterparts.

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Chris is a digital marketing and publishing whizz by trade, having worked alongside the Automotive, Information Security and Software Asset Management sectors.

Specialising in data analysis and social media, he combines an analytical approach with a creative flair to achieve the best results. With a keen interest in Technology and Politics, Chris is constantly on the look-out for the latest stories around change and innovation.

As a lover of all things innovative, he has developed a keen eye for spotting the latest trends and hot topics. He sources and reads the latest news and thought-leadership articles from the world of recruitment before sharing them with the social media population.

 

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