‘My children are my world, but without my career I can’t afford to pay for their world.’

In this guest post, Louisa Symington-Mills of Citymothers, the network for working mothers in City professions, explains what led her to last month’s launch of Cityfathers.

I created Citymothers in late 2012 following my own experience of returning to work in banking after the birth of my first child. I find it hard to pinpoint the source of the idea, which arrived in my head one dark November morning.

Certainly, when I returned to work after maternity leave, I felt isolated from the networking opportunities I had previously enjoyed, due to the simple practical problem of networking events in the City so often taking place after work. Pre-baby, I hadn’t thought twice about attending events in the evening, but now things felt very different. Even if the logistical challenges of finding a babysitter could be addressed, summoning the energy to support a late night generally couldn’t be.

At the same time, I was struck by the lack of support for working mothers in the City. Having returned to work after a four-month maternity leave with a flexible working arrangement (working three days a week in London and two days at home), the ease with which my arrangement was signed off by HR meant that I didn’t foresee the intense effort involved in actually making it work (and by making it work, I mean keeping my team happy), day by day.

As someone who had spent the previous six years navigating an upward trending career path with confidence, I was naively unprepared for the challenges of being a working mother. Surely it wasn’t just me? And so it became apparent that there was a need for both networking and relevant events, with a new organisation that could offer these opportunities at convenient times of day. So I started Citymothers, and it started to grow.

As time went on however, it became clear that we leaving someone out of the work/life balance equation – the Cityfather. Now, being a working mother is not easy – as a mother of two young children aged nine months and two years, and with a full time job in private equity, I can certainly testify to the challenges. But being a working father is possibly harder still.

Flexible working arrangements – for many, the key to a happier office and home life balance – can carry huge stigma, and all the more so for men.  I know fathers who say goodbye to their children on a Sunday night and greet them again on a Saturday morning, an unsurprising but sad side-effect of a City job with long hours and a commute.

Their working wives, by contrast, often afforded some flexibility by their employers, make an exhaustive (and exhausting) effort to be more present and involved in their children’s lives – working part-time, from home, or full time with a structured gap each evening to put the children to bed before resuming work remotely. And this perhaps is why women who work and have children are labelled ‘working mothers’, whilst the equivalent label is rarely applied to men.

I asked one Cityfather I know – one of a very few I’m aware of who has any kind of flexible working arrangement – if he would share his thoughts on why it is so rare for City men to work flexibly. “I’m so sorry, but work would take a really dim view of my situation being publicised”, was the response. And he’s not the only one to feel this way.

In the run up to the launch of Cityfathers last month, we carried out a survey of working fathers in the City and Canary Wharf. The survey revealed a City culture of stigma, where even a request for flexible working was thought to signal an end to a man’s career.  Of a total 750 respondents, just under half said their work/life balance was less than satisfactory.

Tellingly, less than 30 per cent said their experience of being a working father was positive, with the vast majority saying it was either ‘ok – a work in progress’ or ‘a struggle’. Just one year before all new fathers have the right to share parental leave with their partner, the survey found men in City professions divided as to whether they would consider taking up shared parental leave, despite nearly half saying that ‘missing their children’ is their biggest daily challenge.

There were lots of other interesting comments and observations, far too many to repeat here, but for me one comment from a working father stands out:

‘It’s a daily choice between career and family – I have to sacrifice one or the other. My children are my world, but without my career I can’t afford to pay for their world.’

By talking about why the City should embrace flexibility, offering encouragement and peer support to those who wish to be more involved in family life as well as progress a City career, and education and guidance to management, this culture can be changed for the benefit of everyone.

After all, it is not only children who stand to gain from having more involved fathers – the benefits of flexible working for employers have been proven in terms of employee productivity and talent retention. In providing a forum for working fathers to meet others with similar ambitions and priorities, and to hear from thought leaders both within and outside the City, we hope Cityfathers – along with Citymothers – will be a vital part of this process.

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