If someone had told me only a few years ago that I’d be going to take the leap into the precarious world of freelancing, I wouldn’t have believed them. In fact, I would have said they were mad. Who would do such a thing?!
Well the answer to that are, increasingly, mums.
Several years ago, a prophetic Guardian article stated, “The thinktank Demos said its findings [research in 2014] should act as a wake-up call to big employers that parents will choose to work for themselves if they cannot secure a working pattern to suit their family lives.”
According to a report then published in April 2016 by the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (at Kingston University’s Small Business Research Centre), the number of freelancers in the U.K. increased by 36% between 2008 and 2015. During the same period, the number of mothers working as freelancers increased by 70%.
That’s a phenomenal figure.
I have a personal interest in this as I, too, am joining the ranks of these individuals, and setting up my own communications consultancy and commercial copywriting business. It has, however, been a long time in the making.
Once upon a time, I would have rolled my eyes at older women, droning on about how hard working-life is for them as mums. Working part-time. Finishing early. Clocking off. Wrapping up. Leaving the office with a skip in their step. Yes, really hard, I bet!
But now I’m that mum, with a 7 year old and a 20 month toddler. Trust me. There is no skip in my step, just a bleary-eyed stagger. Yet, I also have 16 years of experience in marketing and PR, covering a range of sector and roles. Juggling these two segments of my life has been a challenge, but I know I’m not alone.
I have a circle of female friends at a similar stage in life to me, and although a lot of firms claim to be exponents of equal opportunities, flexible working, and family-friendly policies, the reality is far from that utopia.
I, personally, have known a female friend knocked back for a request to work a four-day week, post-maternity leave, for spurious reasons. I’ve seen job-sharing options denied to others for no defensible reason, and I have been told on a few occasions myself “if you just worked full-time, there might have been promotion opportunities.”
To put it bluntly, there are enough of these examples (even in my own small circle of contacts) to show that many organisations view female workers of a certain age as potentially tricky. And it turns out that being a political leader doesn’t even make you exempt, as this recent hot topic in New Zealand showed us.
So working mums – and sometimes dads, it has to be said – can end up making very hard choices: go back to work full time, OR put careers on hold until the school routine starts (which would be 9 years to tread water for me!) OR take jobs that fit around hectic family life. More often than not, though, this comes with the acceptance of a significant decrease in salary and position.
The “work-life balance” we read about in magazines or on mindfulness posters at the community centre is at best a rarity, and at worse a myth. It seems extraordinarily short-sighted of many employers to treat parents like this, these smart, brilliant people who have oodles of potential over the span of a 40-odd year career. Surely, the art of being a manager is managing people, the more mixed and diverse the better. Harder, yes, but better? Definitely.
There is a shift coming, though. Slowly, but it’s coming. More articles are being written about mums in business without the need for an apologetic tone, like this refreshing blog by Rose & Willard or this BBC Business article, written in May.
Companies like Digital Mums are capitalising on the upward trend in mum freelancers, training mothers with “in-demand digital skills to help them create stimulating, flexible careers that fit around family life.” Digital Mums has so far helped nearly 1,000 mums and businesses.
Other networking enterprises such as Bird Board and Forward Ladies are founded on a community of women in business, and other organisations such as MMB Magazine are working hard to promote regional flexible-working positions too.
So, like many other women, and for the reasons above, here I stand with my toes nudging over the edge of the freelance precipice. I am ready to take the plunge, exhilarated and anxious in equal measure, in the hope of attaining some kind of equilibrium.
Wish me luck on the rapid descent into a new world of contracts and clients and invoicing. You’ll hopefully see me bounce back upwards soon…