Progressing in work – Olivia’s story

Posted 11 December 2019

To mark Election Week, we’ve asked single parents to share their experiences of our key proposal policy areas. With one day to go until the country goes to the polls, our third blog explores single mum Olivia’s experiences of entering and progressing in work, and what she thinks could be done to make things better.

“Good luck finding the work/life balance that every parent wants – if it exists.”

I sat at my desk looking at the email from the CEO of the company where I worked. I would love to say that her well wishes in response to the news I was leaving felt genuine and heartfelt but to me, it felt like a challenge. Her words seemed to suggest that such an aim was about as realistic as a flying horse turning up to take me to do the school run and commute to work, reducing my hour and a half journey to ten minutes.

Whatever the intention behind the message, the impact was not a positive one.  It made me angry. If the achievement of balance between career and parenting doesn’t exist, why doesn’t it? And why shouldn’t we expect it to? (Especially as I had accepted the role with the belief that I would have it.)

A step up the career ladder

I had taken my foot off the peddle career-wise during my marriage. I had chosen to be the parent who was present for all of my daughter’s milestones, so I took a step back and worked part-time in a job I valued, but one that didn’t have options for career progression.

However, as she settled into school, my marriage ended and responsibility for being her main carer and provider fell on my shoulders. Being the parent that was present wasn’t a choice – it became a necessity. On top of that, I knew that it was time to do something for myself too. I returned to university to complete a postgraduate course through distance learning while working. Within a few weeks of adding the qualification to my CV, I received a call out-of-the-blue about the prospect of a role working for the CEO who went on to send the email mentioned above.

The role seemed ideal – a step up the career ladder and an improvement in finances. Most importantly, during the interview, after learning I was a parent, she spoke enthusiastically about how many of their staff were parents, and how remote working was common. Within minutes of leaving the room, I got a call to say the job was mine and home-working would not be an issue. Although the commute was a lot longer than I was accustomed to, I figured it would only be for one to two days per week, tops. All the afterschool childcare closed at 6pm, which would now be no use to me due to a later return home, so my mum agreed to help out a couple of days per week.

Feelings of failure and exhaustion

The speed at which the job was offered reflects the speed at which I regretted taking it. Shortly after starting, I was told their policies had changed, and as it had not been written into my contract, home-working would not be an option.

It was not ideal. I left home early, dropping my daughter off at breakfast club prior to school.  I returned home each evening after she had gone to bed, at which point my mum, worn out by an energetic primary school child, would tiredly make her way home. Feelings of failure and exhaustion were familiar companions, along with guilt that at a time when my mother should be enjoying her retirement, she was stationed at the school gates each evening because I couldn’t be.

Eventually, I made it clear that I would need to leave if I couldn’t work remotely, and one day per week at home was begrudgingly agreed. I remember the first few days at home resulted in early morning messages from the CEO which felt like they were delivered to ensure I was online rather than for any actual task-related purpose.

Alarm bells

The need to leave became pressing and I began applying for jobs, making it clear in interviews that I was a parent with childcare responsibilities which could not be met in my current role.

Unsurprisingly success was not forthcoming. A practice interview with a friend who worked in HR, taught me a few home truths. She told me, “Employers don’t care about your need for flexibility. Being a parent simply sets off alarm bells about your reliability and commitment. Do not mention it until you have a confirmed offer – then negotiate”.

So that’s what I did. I now work in a way that allows me the balance I craved, but most importantly, in a role that means feelings of guilt, failure and exhaustion no longer walk by my side. However, unlike the other jobs I’d applied to, I knew it would not be a big step up the career ladder – so, maybe in our current climate my old CEO was right after all.

My hope

Research by Working Families states that it will take more than 50 years for all jobs with salaries above £20,000 (FTE) to be advertised with flexible working options. This makes the notion of in-work progression – especially for single parents on universal credit – appear unattainable under a government that cites this as one of its key aims.

My hope is that the next government will tackle these barriers, rather than blame those subjected to them. I hope the government will chose to ensure that employers consider flexible working requests at the point of recruitment and make it harder for an employer to refuse a request. I would also like to see them enforce the inclusion of data on the recruitment and promotion of staff working flexibly or part time into reports employers submit to public bodies responsible for tackling their non-compliance. I believe this would ensure that employers who find offering flexible working challenging, recognise this and seek support to overcome it; while highlighting those that wilfully ignore it and the need for stronger penalties.

As the UK prepares to vote on 12 December 2019, Gingerbread is calling on single parents to make their votes count and ensure single parent families are at the centre of any new government’s approach. Find out how you can make your voice heard.

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