Case study: UCL works with us to tackle equality barriers facing working mothers

Since becoming the first British university to admit women in 1868, UCL has been committed to advancing the careers of women in science. One of its latest priorities is helping women to tackle the barriers that can hinder career progression after they become a parent or carer.

“We wanted to remove equality barriers in keeping with our belief that becoming a parent shouldn’t be an obstacle to career success.” Madiha Sajid, Chair of Parents and Carers Together (PACT), UCL

The Challenge

Madiha Sajid, operations and development manager for Women’s Higher Education Network (WHEN) and chair of the Parents and Carers Together (PACT) network at UCL, explains, “As London’s global university, UCL is committed to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at the highest levels. We have a very diverse intellectual community of more than 13,000 staff and 38,000 students, from 150 different countries, and believe that everyone should have the same opportunities for progression and development, regardless of sex, age or religion. Even so, there are still a number of barriers hindering women in particular from achieving career progression once they became a parent or carer.”

She adds, “Barriers such as the huge cost of childcare in London, where our three campuses are based, and the stigma associated with flexible working, which can lead to the assumption that those working part-time or from home are somehow less committed or ambitious. Which can contribute to gender pay-gap issues and lack of female representation at higher levels. We wanted to remove these equality barriers, in keeping with our belief that becoming a parent, or caring for an elderly relative, shouldn’t be an obstacle to achieving career success.”

“There was a huge appetite for support when returning from maternity leave.”

The Approach

The first step was to establish the Parents and Carers Together (PACT) network. “The Equalities, Inclusion and Diversity Team helped me to set up the network after a focus group for parents and carers established they had no formal representation,” explains Madiha. “Employees with parental and caring responsibilities wanted to have representation in the university and more support to deal with the very real challenges they were facing. We started by using the network to bring parents and carers together for talks on everything from raising responsible teenagers to dealing with sleep deprivation.”

She adds, “There was a huge appetite for support before becoming a parent and also when returning to work. In response, we invited Parent & Professional to provide some maternity and career coaching workshops to make it easier for employees to transition from work into parenthood and back again. We particularly wanted to help expectant employees cope with the huge changes they were about to make to their life, in a way that was supportive of their careers. We knew the more supported they were, the more likely they were to return, be productive and be committed to the university.”

The Solution

The maternity workshops created and facilitated by Parent & Professional were for pregnant workers planning maternity leave. “Parent & Professional did an exceptional job of alleviating the anxieties faced by pregnant workers,” says Madiha. “They provided lots of practical support on how to best to handover their work and stay in touch with their manager while they were away, so they didn’t feel like a stranger when they came back. Plus, everyone was also given lots of emotional support, on issues ranging from dealing with negative body image to managing the impact of sleep deprivation.”

The workshops were conducted in small cohorts of 12-14 participants at a time so there was time for lots of meaningful interactions. Everyone found this peer support so valuable that most cohorts chose to set up WhatsApp groups and continued to meet up and support each other, swapping tips and even baby clothes, long after the initial workshop.

“The workshops for maternity returners again dealt with emotional concerns, such as feelings of guilt about leaving their child to return to work. Practical concerns, such as identifying affordable childcare and support in the event that their child became sick, or existing childcare arrangements broke down, were also addressed,” says Madiha. “The most powerful aspect of the maternity returners workshops was how Parent & Professional gave women the confidence to have a properly informed discussion with their manager about their options for working more flexibly and the importance of measuring their success according to outcomes, rather than hours worked.”

The Results

“Everyone left the Parent & Professional workshops feeling more prepared,” says Madiha. “Female employees returning from maternity leave are now able to have a much more meaningful conversation with their manager, because the limitation of neither the manager or parent knowing what to ask for has been removed. 95% of those who attended said they would recommend the workshop and 81% said it had helped them to feel more in control of their career. 84% of those who attended said their manager supports their development.”

Madiha adds, “In the five years that we’ve been working with Parent & Professional 159 people have gone through 14 workshops. New mothers have become more confident about getting what they need from both home and work to progress their careers and UCL became one of the first institutions to achieve a prestigious Athena SWAN silver award, for its commitment to advancing the careers of women in higher education and research.”

She concludes, “Having a parent-friendly workforce has helped us to become one of the top-ranked universities in the world. We are now working with Parent & Professional to provide 1:1 parent coaching and have started promoting the maternity coaching available to new starters, so they know that we will be supportive of them if they decide to start a family. Next, we want to do much more to support workers who are carers and run workshops for same-sex parents.”

“New mothers have become much more confident about getting what they need from both home and work to progress their careers.”

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