How to engage flexibly working mothers

Employers should consider how to support part-time mothers – who have different needs and pressures than their colleagues, says executive coach Rebecca Hourston.

Woman and young girl in kitchen with laptop and paperwork smilinDespite the Institute of Leadership and Management’s latest research showing that the gender balance of flexible workers has now evened out overall (60% of men and 61% of women now work flexible hours of some description), there are still vast differences between the male and female experience of working flexibly.

Of course, not all women enter flexible working arrangements because they have children. But as an employer, how well do you truly understand and know how to engage those who do? What’s different specifically for your female employees who are mums working part-time in combination with spending the other part of the week with their children?

It pays to understand them, because they can potentially be some of the most dedicated, efficient, loyal role-models within your organisation – if you support them properly. Get it wrong, and you risk them mentally (if not actually) quitting; going through the motions just to get the pay cheque. Bad for business, bad for everyone.

So what’s different for mothers who work part-time or some other flexible pattern?

You can think of them as “Roots and Wings Mums” – professional women who have made the choice that they want the roots that come from proper time with their children during the week, AND the wings that come from fully utilising their talents and passions at work. Their mindset is one of wanting to achieve the best of both worlds – a fulfilling combination of stimulating work AND home.

As a flexibly working mum, it’s even more of a juggling act than for full-time working mums – still doing lots of the planning and practicalities for their children alongside all their work commitments; one foot in each camp all the time.

The experience varies substantially depending on what her work pattern is. At four days, even though she’s working part-time, the upside is that she can more or less get away with being viewed as being there full-time by colleagues and clients (indeed, she might not even need to tell people she’s “only part-time”). The downside is that she’s likely to have poor boundaries and be madly filling in the work in all spare hours, with her level of engagement suffering as a result. At one to three days, the divide is clearer, but she tends to feel a lot more invisible.

Over a third of all women (38%) say lack of confidence in their own abilities, and reluctance to push for promotions (37%) is making it harder for them to reach their career goals, according to a survey by Cancer Research UK. This wavering in self-confidence is likely to hit flexibly working mums hardest of all, as they unhelpfully compare themselves both to full-time colleagues and full-time stay-at-home mothers and often end up believing they’re coming up short all round.

Here are three practical ways in which you can help flexibly working mums within your team to thrive:

  1. Actively encourage setting and respecting boundaries. Their week is a constant cycle of taking one hat (parent) off and putting the other hat (professional) on, and it can be hard to be fully present in whatever they’re doing. Although your business obviously needs to get as much from them as possible, it will end up being counter-productive if you have a resentful employee who is being paid to work three days but feels like she’s doing five.
  2. Explore alternative ways for her to network and raise her profile. The traditional ways of being seen and heard within a business (evening networking events, lunch with colleagues, natters by the water-cooler) often don’t work for mums who are in the office less than full-time. Instead, find projects that will involve expanding her network, or brainstorm with her on ways she might set up her own networking and profile-raising opportunities at more convenient times.
  3. Communicate what she’s doing well. She needs to hear what’s working, how she’s making a difference. Often, colleagues in the business imagine she doesn’t need to be told – but she’s usually longing for some positive recognition, and will respond by giving even more to the business.

Rebecca Hourston is Founder and MD of Move Mountains, a professionally certified Executive Coach and graduate of Cambridge University, and flexibly working mum of three boisterous little boys. She helps professional working mothers and their organisations make flexible and part-time work actually work, through coaching and leadership development programmes, workshops and webinars. She will be speaking at the Work and Family Show on Friday 21st and Saturday 22nd February 2014 (

Rebecca Hourston headshot - MOVE MOUNTAINS stand C18

Main image credit:

Categories: Comment, Part-time, Working parents

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