Zoe Osmond of NABS: why it’s time for a fairer deal for ad industry working parents

There might be nothing new about ‘working parents’ yet today you can’t move for headlines about this topic.

It seems there are a number of reasons for this. There are now more than five million working mothers in the UK; the pace of technology is impacting on the blurring of lines between personal and work lives, and more men seem keener (and more able) to share childcare responsibility.

There’s also much less of a defined family shape these days. In most cases, with the partial abandonment of the nuclear family, the notion of a familial support network is often lacking or thin. So if anything, today’s working parent is the ‘sandwich parent’ – balancing work with kids but also, as we all live longer, taking on the additional role as carer for elderly parents. The pressures come from both young and old, as well as from the workplace.

So can you have it all? At the many mentoring and networking events we run at NABS, I’m often asked how to be an effective parent and an effective worker without compromising one’s career and personal life.

article-1211051-054B8955000005DC-802_468x295First off, let’s be clear that we’re not just talking about the CEO (left) with a nanny, housekeeper and a generous business account that includes taxis to and from the workplace.

There seems to be an assumption that you become a parent when you’ve more or less reached a position of seniority or leadership. However, that’s not always the case – many people in our industry who have kids relatively early on might not have the bargaining power or the confidence possessed by parents who are further ahead in their careers.

What of those less senior parents? What can be done to build their confidence and their knowledge? Less seniority means less income to pay for the support that softens the practical issues associated with being a working parent. Nannies, au pairs and child minders all come at a cost. Instead, these parents are looking for more practical support and guidance, for a more balanced work/life ethos that doesn’t mean making a choice of one at the expense of the other.

Of course working parents in senior positions do face their own challenges; there will be firm expectations upon them as leaders of companies and even a feeling that they should act as role models within the business more broadly. Clearly seniority brings a level of material comfort but it’s certainly no walk in the park wherever you sit.

And what’s more, ‘working parent’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘working mother.’ Yes, biology means that it is usually the woman who takes the main brunt of working parenthood, even if that just means taking the least time possible off for the birth. But the new legislation coming into effect in 2015 means that parents will be able to share between them their maternity/paternity leave.

Companies will have to change. We need high-profile male role models who take time out of work to share the parenting responsibilities with their female partners: men who are proud to raise their hands and talk about their role as working fathers and wear their child-rearing experience as a badge of honour.

Interestingly, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of fathers who have proactively chosen to look after home and hearth rather than work has doubled in the last 20 years, from 111,000 to 209,000. And there is every indication that will continue to rise with new paternity laws in place next year

At NABS, we recently conducted an industry-wide survey among working parents from agencies and media brands with an approximate 50:50 male/female split. Out of this, a massive 85% of working parents cited guilt as a huge issue in their lives. Not surprising, given the fact that it’s part of the DNA of having a child. But what’s more interesting was that whilst guilt was evenly split between men and women, men were more likely to feel guilt about work while at home, whereas with women it was the other way round.

It’s clear that the pressures are immense – and nearly 60 per cent in our survey said they knew of someone who has had to leave their job because of the pressures that came with being a working parent. Indeed, over a third of parents have been made to feel uncomfortable by their peers or employer because of their parenting duties.

That said, it’s all too easy to forget the fact that being a working parent brings a number of positives and skills, most obviously an improved sense of time management. Our survey similarly shows parents are also regarded as being more responsible (53%), bringing greater balance and objectivity (57%) to the workplace and, within this, bringing greater empathy as well. Even the non–parents appreciate this and value, rather than decry, parents’ improved perspective on work/life.

We have a responsibility to ensure these people don’t fall by the wayside. As a result, NABS has devised a programme that is both educative and curative, geared to support individuals with the transition to being a more effective working parent – and also to provide those who are more challenged with 1:1 coaching and workshops. These aim to optimise performance and wellbeing whilst encompassing work and family responsibilities.

It is only with programmes such as these, designed to complement HR practice in companies, that we can retain the ambitious talent within our industry – and in doing so, ensure that the notion of a career rather than just a job still resonates with our working parents.

(This is an updated version of the article).

unnamed-2Zoe Osmond is CEO of UK ad industry charity NABS.

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