Becky Hewitt: We urgently need to change attitudes towards flexible working

At a time when the sector needs a diverse pool of exceptional leaders, we must make the pandemic a turning point for how we work

Yesterday I had my first proper cry of lockdown three.

I was completely exhausted from another week of homeschooling and CEO-ing: balancing board meetings and budgets, with fractions, fronted adverbials and fretful screen-fatigued children who miss their friends and teachers. 

If I am honest, I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster fuelled by the burden of "juggling" for a while. 

While parents all over the country may be welcoming the news that schools will fully reopen soon, this isn’t just down to the pandemic – lockdown and school closures have just exacerbated the many inequalities that already existed for working women. 

Over the last year, the demands of our caring responsibilities have become much more visible at work.

At Changing Faces, we have done our best to proactively support our working parents – offering flexible furlough and adapting work patterns where needed. 

But I still know that behind the scenes are knacked and overwhelmed parents working past midnight to get everything done. 

Things right now might be more extreme than in normal times – but these impossible expectations of "doing it all" have always been here.  

When I started thinking about becoming a chief executive, my single biggest anxiety was that conversation about flexible working.

I was already a first-timer, how could I be taken seriously as a part-timer too? It almost stopped me applying. But I did, and as chief executive I work a four-day week.  

As a result of working flexibly, younger women in the sector often talk to me about their deep concerns about balancing a senior move with their role as parents.

Too many see it as an insurmountable barrier. At a time when the sector needs a diverse pool of exceptional, motivated, passionate leaders more than ever, we urgently need to change our attitude to flexible working – for women and for men.  

I know the shame of seeming "less-committed" has made me overcompensate. I haven’t done less of anything. I have just done everything at once – firing off emails at 6am and late at night. 

I have rolled my eyes and said "of course I work full-time hours really"- signalling to others they must do the same.

Pre-lockdown I have bundled fevered children off to school because I have a board meeting.

I have accidentally ordered 120 spring chickens for an easter bonnet because I’m shopping under the table during a finance committee.

I have spent November-to-March with a sinus infection because I won’t take a day off. I have hoped no-one notices how close I am to burnout.  

I can’t imagine anyone contemplating the juggle as I model it and thinking it’s a good idea. It doesn’t feel good to me anymore, either.

I know I have internalised that idea that I can only work and parent adequately if I sacrifice my own wellbeing. It is not sustainable.  

So, perhaps we can make this crisis-point a turning point. I am proud to be a working mum, and I would like our next generation of leaders, and my daughters, to see an example of working-parenthood that looks possible, motivating and even joyful – not an endurance test.  

But as a female chief executive, what can I do right now?

Adding my voice to the amazing organisations and individuals calling for urgent structural and financial changes in how women’s work and caring is valued doesn’t feel enough.

I want to use my platform, privilege and power to call for change. 

As a chief executive, I will listen harder to working parents and push for all roles to be advertised as either part-time or full-time – so candidates don’t have to ask and know different working patterns are valued. 

I am going to offer a much more flexible and blended approach to home and office working, and revisit assumptions about core hours.

Building on the approach we have taken during the pandemic, I want to allow people to manage their work pattern and childcare responsibilities in a way that works for them and the organisation. 

I have worked part-time, successfully, in several demanding and senior roles in the sector.

Where I have done so a talented team of fantastic part-time workers has grown alongside me, bringing huge value and skill.

Complex, challenging, exciting roles can be done just as well by working flexibly – and, crucially, working less. 

I will stop propping up broken systems built on women’s burnout and set a different personal example.

When I work part-time, I am really going to work less hours. And that is going to be okay. Role models matter.

I am going to keep thinking about the role model that I want to be.

Becky Hewitt is chief executive of Changing Faces

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