Making the most of mums
By Sophia Parker
4 minute read
This conversation is part of our series, Walking the talk, which explores the diversity of the UK’s charities and foundations, with perspectives from both in and outside the sector. Find the full collection here.
Three years ago, as I faced the daunting prospect of my third maternity leave in three years, I decided launching a charity was the best way to face my fear of months alone with a baby and two toddlers. Looking back, it was probably a moment of postpartum mania. But launching at that time of my life meant my desire to support smart mums has been hard-baked into the way the organisation has evolved; that’s something I’m very proud of.
At Little Village, our norm is a three- or four-day week. There’s no rule saying five days full time is what’s needed to get talented people to do great work. I hope we’re showing it’s possible to give our important human relationships the time and space they need, alongside our paid work.
That said, it’s not been easy. I definitely don’t think we’ve fully cracked it just yet. I often feel I’m fighting against the pressure to operate more ‘normally’, and there are undoubtedly some challenges in operating so flexibly. With that in mind, I want to outline three ‘C’s which I think are crucial to enabling our workforce to be the parents they want to be, as well as committed employees.
The Little Village team work anything from a 10-hour to a 28-hour week, for anything from 43 to 52 weeks of the year. Some of our team work a mix of daytimes and evenings, some work more ‘standard’ days, some work school hours only. To add to the complexity, we are dispersed across three sites around London.
Such flexibility could create anxiety. The temptation could be to exert control: to monitor, fill in time sheets, and review hours completed against hours contracted. But instead we’re working hard to build a culture where the employer/employee relationship is adult-to-adult, and people are trusted to work their hours at the times that work for them.
In fact, the main challenge to this isn’t people not doing enough hours: it’s that they are doing too many. People can feel under pressure to reply to the email that comes in when they shouldn’t be working. And for those on ‘irregular’ schedules, the ‘norm’ of a five-day working week looms large.
But we stick to our commitment to enable people to be parents. For example, we ask people not to send internal emails between Friday morning and Sunday evening. We have an organisational ‘norm’ of a 48-hour response rate to messages. We work hard to co-design these boundaries to ensure individual and organisational needs are met, and we take care to reiterate them regularly.
Confidence building is part of our DNA
Many of the women we interviewed for jobs are bruised and exhausted from the challenge of combining work and parenting in standard workplaces. They are burnt out, feeling that they’ve never quite been where they need to be, or doing what they should be doing. Other women we’ve interviewed start nervously by saying “I’ve not worked for 10 years so this is a little scary”, as they find their way back after taking time out for kids.
So we spend a lot of time rebuilding people’s confidence and self-belief. One of our values is ‘thriving’ and it is as relevant to our team as it is to the families we support. I find myself drawing heavily on my coaching qualification as we develop our individuals and teams of both staff and volunteers. It breaks my heart that people can feel so left behind for the simple fact of having had a child, and I very much hope that everyone who joins the Little Village community is able to grow their confidence and faith in themselves once more.
Co-operation with men is key
We have one man on our staff team. He is called Frank, and he is the persona we have given to our database. I am troubled by this. We have not had a single application from a man in the last five recruitment rounds we’ve run. The message I take from this is that men simply aren’t facing the challenge women do in mainstream work to juggle work and family life. We appeal to women because they still carry the load of childrearing, and do not command the earning power that men do.
Socially, we default to women being the primary carers. Letters from the midwife are addressed to mums (Schools call the mum first unless you explicitly ask them not to. Men who become fathers are seen as more committed at work; mums are seen as less reliable. Dads are heralded for being great fathers for doing a day’s childcare; women’s weekly slog goes unnoticed.
Our relationships with our children are the bedrock of secure families, and our working lives needs to be shaped around these, not the other way around. Little Village is powered by women and I hope that collectively we are blazing a trail for an organisation that shows what this could looks like in practice. Maybe next year we’ll get a man to join us.
Sophia Parker set up Little Village in 2016 and continues to guide its growth based on our vision and mission. She’s worked in and around the issues of poverty and inequality for 20 years, and has a track record in designing innovative, community based solutions to social challenges. You can read more about her story here.