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Flexibility key to keeping Northern Ireland mums in workplace

Talented, educated and experienced workers are being sidelined just because they are mothers, says Helen Wan, operations director of Walker.

By Helen Wan

Published 01/12/2015

Carolyn Fairbairn, the first ever female director general of the CBI
Carolyn Fairbairn, the first ever female director general of the CBI

The so-called brain drain of our younger people leaving Northern Ireland for greater opportunities elsewhere is well documented.

But there is another brain drain of extremely talented, well educated and experienced women who choose to step off the corporate ladder simply because the rigidity of the traditional working week does not also allow for a quality family life. At a time when recruiting the right people for the right role is so competitive, employers are missing out on an opportunity to keep these high calibre women in the workplace.

I'm a mum, I work part-time and I work term-time. I'm also a director in a busy law firm. People comment on how lucky I am to have such a flexible arrangement but this is what it should be like for everyone, including men.

It also works. In an age where we all have 24/7 internet access, there is no reason why I can't send emails or draft documents at a time that suits me. Flexible working allows me to be in control of my work, in my time and on terms that make me happy. My clients, without exception, are extremely supportive and my family life never suffers.

At Walker, we are investing in training young lawyers and we want to keep them. When we look to employ someone we want the best person, the best legal talent whether they are male or female. And 75% of trainee solicitors in Northern Ireland are female. Our starting point is, how do we make it easier for this person to work here and stay here?

Carolyn Fairbairn, the first ever female director general of the CBI, recently hit out at what she called "not very inclusive" networking dinners. Corporate hospitality is mainly aimed at and attended by men at times convenient to men. Career, working women with families simply don't have the same time to attend business breakfasts, sporting events or old school boys dinners. At a recent business breakfast that I attended in a local rugby club there were about 100 guests. I counted six women in the room. Two of them were the speaker and the sponsor of the event.

Too many women are still being held back - not by a glass ceiling but because the cumulative effect of the micro issues they face every day slows their journey. In July 2014, there were 130,000 solicitors in England and Wales. Of these, 63,000 were female. Only 8000 were partners. There can be no justification for this imbalance and it is an astonishing waste of time, money and education if women are not appreciated for the unique qualities and skills set they can bring to the workplace.

Women should not have to sacrifice family over work. Annabel Crabbe sums it up in her book The Wife Drought, when she says that the obligation for working mothers is a very precise one - the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children while raising one's children as if one did not have a job.

Family will always come first for any working woman but employers can do their bit to allow women the flexible working arrangements that result in happy, stimulated and fulfilled staff. At Walker, working mums don't need to worry about someone standing over their desk at 9am wondering where they are. We can do both school runs, we can make the school Nativity and even the Tesco shop without ever having to make a guilty phone call to explain our whereabouts. There is a mutual understanding that flexibility facilitates real productivity. Our ethos is that family life is totally integral to working life. This is the face of modern business. It is liberating and it can and does work. 

Contact Walker Legal at 6 Bridge Street, Portadown, BT62 1WL, tel 028 3833 7591, and Scottish Provident Building, 7 Donegall Square West, Belfast, Co Antrim, BT1 6JH, tel 028 9091 8461

Belfast Telegraph

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