My company, Sidekicks, employs eight people. All eight are female, two have young children, one spent nine years out of the workplace raising her family before joining us, and one of us was heavily pregnant when she joined the company, early this year. The catalyst for starting my business was disbelief at an often unbelievably antiquated secretarial recruitment industry.
Often agencies make money by placing highly skilled, yet frequently undervalued PAs who are often superficially assessed based on the way they look, dress and speak, and we are trying to challenge the status quo.
Pregnancy and recruitment
Julia Aaltonen, who was heavily pregnant when I took her on, holds an MA from Cass Business School and after six years in our industry is indisputably one of London’s best secretarial recruiters. She moved back to London earlier this year from Washington and Julia sadly assumed that she would need to wait until after the birth of her child to seek work. Julia is one of the best talents in our industry, and should have been in incredibly high demand and to me, as an employer, this seemed ridiculous.
I was pregnant whilst looking for work which, on the surface, wasn’t an ideal situation. But, then – I’m also very good at my job. I know my market, I know what my clients expect and I know what my candidates need. My role lends itself strongly to flexible working, and if a company has good technology and the right attitude pregnancy shouldn’t pose an issue.
The fact Julia was pregnant didn’t pose as a problem for us – hiring Julia was a great opportunity, and it has been a decision I have never regretted. She is an integral part of our team and I have no doubt that motherhood will help improve her already formidable skills even further.
Challenging the status quo
Here at Sidekicks we like to promote the benefits of flexi-working, with much of the work force being working mothers who are employed on a part time or flexible basis, whilst delivering a level of commercial success which is testament to adopting a trust-based employee approach.
I believe that there is enormous value in hiring people who don’t fit the status quo. This isn’t because I want to make some sort of statement – ‘our company is morally superior because of our commitment to diversity’ – it’s because I genuinely believe that employers are missing out on a huge pool of seriously dedicated and talented staff. In a market in which we’re experiencing a real shortage of exceptional candidates, this isn’t something that we as employers can afford to dismiss.
Many of our candidates are women – according to the ONS*, 77% of people working within Administrative and Secretarial occupations are female. Given the high proportion of women in our industry, it’s therefore even more critical that attitudes towards expectant and working mothers are open-minded, fair and nondiscriminatory.
My own experience in the secretarial industry
Before founding Sidekicks, I worked for twelve years in administrative roles supporting CEOs and successful businesspeople -within industries as diverse as US-based investment banking to London retail property. During this time, as many other females in their twenties will also tell you, I noticed that potential employers (particularly small businesses) were often nervous of hiring women who appeared to be of child-bearing age because they were apprehensive about the cost to the business of supporting maternity leave. A recruiter once advised me to take off my engagement ring for an interview in case the sight of it ‘set off alarm bells’. I was explicitly asked in interview by a potential employer whether or not I wanted to have children and when I was thinking of having them. (Of course, this is illegal). Although replying in the negative, I was quickly reminded that I was approaching thirty and so might change my mind ‘within a year or two’. Unsurprisingly I didn’t get that job.
Of course I was more than a little irritated by this! I am good at my job: hardworking, diligent and dedicated to my career. Why should I be penalized for the fact that I am of an age and gender where I am capable of reproducing? And even if I were to have a child – would that really mean my career would be over?
I can now tell you emphatically that it wouldn’t be; I’ve seen it first hand within Sidekicks, and Julia is not the only example of this.
Flexible working and diversity
We have one of the most capable, high achieving Directors of Operations in our industry, working at Sidekicks. Katie Booth has two young children, and she works a flexible week in the office to allow her to juggle her time effectively. By the time she arrives at Sidekicks HQ in Mayfair at 8.00am each morning, Katie has already got her children out of bed, made sure they are washed and dressed, lunches made and ready for school. She has started the day of two other people whilst I am still on my first coffee. This translates to a dedication and determination not to waste a single moment of each working day which seems to be a trait common to every parent I have worked with. This ultra-awareness of time and the ability to manage it so effectively is an incredibly powerful asset to any employer – it translates into enormous productivity within a business.
It is common for women to worry about having a family for fear of losing their career, and employers worry about allocating resources to an individual whose career plans may be subject to change. However, the rewards for taking a chance on these women are immense.
If a business is willing to ‘put its money where its mouth is’ and hire the person who is genuinely the best for the job – no matter their age, gender or circumstances – they will benefit from immeasurable levels of dedication and loyalty, and a genuine commitment from that individual to make it work.
Employers must lead by example. Yes, it takes a little juggling, and for a small business it can be daunting, but the long-term benefits in terms of employee retention, team spirit, dedication and personal accountability are colossal.
The solution to addressing old-fashioned attitudes toward hiring expectant mothers isn’t to get angry about it; it’s to educate employers about the benefits these women will bring to their businesses. Fundamentally, what it boils down to is that it’s the sensible – and decent – thing to do. Our daughters deserve to inherit a working world where starting a family whilst having a fulfilling career isn’t seen as a selfish attempt to ‘have it all’ – it’s seen as normal, and where years of dedication to an employer can rightly be expected to translate to a supportive and progressive attitude towards maternity policy and flexible working. Women and employers really can have the best of both worlds – we just need to work together.
*Source: Labour Force Survey, Office for National Statistics