9 November 2015

The Writer’s (Career) Journey: using the techniques and principles of careers advice and guidance in creative writing courses

I will be presenting a workshop this coming Friday at the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) annual conference, where I will present tools, relevant career counselling techniques, group work and individual exercises that can be used to help students understand why they want to write and where it might take them.

I have taught creative writing since 2007 at various universities, in community and adult education, in primary and secondary schools and from undergraduate to postgraduate level. Prior to and during this time I have also worked in careers services, trained as a careers adviser and moved into research and development in the field of career education. I am currently employed by Scotland’s national skills body, Skills Development Scotland, as an equalities expert in the delivery of national training programmes.

My interest in career development informs my teaching practice at all ages and levels and I will share with delegates some of the techniques and principles of careers advice and guidance that they might like to integrate, as creative writing tutors and lecturers, in their creative writing courses.

My aim is to help tutors gain a better understanding of how to help learners map their writer’s journey, identify career support networks and, for those who wish to, develop careers in writing. Once a writer has a clearer idea of where they want to be, one-to-one coaching can be beneficial–a service that can be accessed through this NAWE directory of practitioners.

My workshop concentrates on activities that can be delivered in groups. Participants engage in practical, adaptable activities and learn how career planning can benefit the writing workshop. They gain a better understanding of how to help learners map their writer’s journey, identify career support networks and develop careers in writing.

I’ve selected career planning techniques and adaptable tools for emerging writers from a variety of backgrounds, of all ages and at all levels. These are straightforward, practical, adaptable activities tutors can use in the classroom, in tutorials or in workshops using practical methods to help writers focus on where they want to be after their time with a tutor is over. Careers guidance is rooted in counselling approaches. An important counselling technique used in career guidance interviews is that of contracting. Career tools and activities can be easily positioned early in a writing programme, perhaps in a first session, where the rules and processes of a writing workshop programme are established–what as facilitators in a writing workshop could also define as the “contracting” stage.

I’ll be asking participants on Friday to think about their own journeys, as writers, to where they are now. Understanding your own career history can help you support the development of others . Participants may even find the session useful in planning their own futures!

2 August 2015

Forthcoming Conference Presentation: NAWE, November 2015

I will be delivering a conference presentation on Friday 13th November 2015 at the National Association of Writers in Education annual conference in Durham.

The Writer’s (Career) Journey

This session will look at how to use the techniques and principles of careers advice and guidance in creative writing courses. The workshop will present tools, relevant career counselling techniques, group work and individual exercises that can be used to help students understand why they want to write and where it might take them. Participants will engage in practical, adaptable activities and learn how career planning can benefit the writing workshop for students of all ages. Participants will gain a better understanding of how to help learners map their writer’s journey, identify career support networks and develop careers in writing.

The presentation will draw directly on career development theory and the importance of the role of non-careers professionals in career information, advice and guidance provision to learners. I will also be drawing on the research I have undertaken in working towards my submission for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) this year. 

This year's conference will also feature presentations from Claire Dean and Jane Alexander, not just good friends but also fellow writers and doctoral researchers and whose work (creative and academic) I cannot recommend highly enough. 

Bookings for the conference can be made here. A full conference programme will be available shortly. All NAWE members, including student members, are eligible for member discounts. 

Follow us on twitter at:

Emma Bolger @bolger_emma
Claire Dean @claireddean
Jane Alexander @finsey_obay

16 June 2015

Character and Career Education

I attended the Character Scotland conference this week, which welcomed over 250 delegates, all keen to explore how we can integrate character development into our educational practices. This is my first exploratory post into character and career education, information, advice and guidance following this two-day conference. 

Before I go onto the content of the seminars and keynotes I took most from in relation to my own practice and research, worth noting was the quality of the delivery of presentations. In Seminar 1 Education (re)design, the panel used the PechaKucha approach: presenters work through 20 slides, each displayed for 20 seconds. This was completely new to me, and talk about keeping folk to time and to the point! I am wondering how I can use this in my own teaching and presentations. As a delegate it kept me engaged and whetted my appetite to learn more about the presenters, their backgrounds, their topics.

A second stand-out moment in relation to public speaking was the delivery of three brief presentations by science students from the Greenock campus of West College Scotland. Unlike so many conference presenters, seminar speakers and workshop facilitators, they used their PowerPoint slides appropriately! A few key pointers on the slides and focused, engaging dialogue with the audience around these prompts plus the enthusiasm of Jason, Amanda and Kim for their college experience and essentials skills reflection whilst in education, meant their talks were illuminating, and takes me to the main focus of this blog post.

At the start of conference, in her opening keynote speech Dr Avis Glaze spoke of interpersonal skills and how young people need to have the opportunity to develop these in school. The three students demonstrated that for them, this had not been the case and it was only at college level they had the opportunity to work on their personal development in this way. Dr Glaze highlighted community education and civic engagement as examples of character building career education.

This wasn't a career-guidance specific conference but it is worth noting (as ever!) that all three of the students demonstrated specific aspects of career development theory in relation to their return to college and learning journeys and future thinking. This included the influence of family (an uncle and a sister making noteworthy appearances) and friends on their career and subject choices, the visibility of jobs in their sector (via multiple employer-site visits) and the use of personal reflection, in the form of the Your Essential Skills (YES) portal.

YES was developed by Grant Taylor and colleagues at West College Scotland and enables students to reflect upon and create their own narratives relating to what we commonly know to be soft, essential, transferable or employability skills. I am not going to go into what they should be called just now, suffice to say we know what we are talking about; personal development in relation to interpersonal skills, employment skills, communication skills, self-reliance, independence and the like which are of huge relevance when applying for work (paid and voluntary) or further study. Dare I say that these soft skills might even get you a boyfriend or girlfriend, enable you to meet new like-minded friends or give you the confidence to pursue new interests or activities? Maybe, but it might only raise the question of what on earth did people do before we started teaching this stuff? Sit at home and wait for life to come calling? 

We do need to help our young people to obtain the skills that will get them ahead in a highly competitive labour market. The focus of YES, which is used in conjunction with guidance slots, is that students are encouraged to think about their potential as an employee before applying for jobs and making the transition into work. The three students in the session were confident about their forthcoming entry to the labour market and this alongside a wealth of examples for competency based applications and interviews form the way in for a majority of roles.  In Seminar 5 Assessment of Character? Why Not! on the second day of the conference, representatives from the SQA encouraged us to explore how character might be assessed. It is fair to say this was a 'lively' session; little consensus was reached as to whether it is right to assess character and if so, what form that would take.

A quantitative/qualitative difference between how employers judge character makes any assessment route difficult. Employers may be happy to employ people on surface value at application stage (a qualitative judgement based on the applicant's personal presentation and ability to provide competency-based examples of their character). There are some roles for which an upstanding citizen needs to prove themselves via the disclosure process. Employers look for potential employees who are of good character, but the applicant suitability varies between sectors and roles. Character references are still used in some recruitment processes. Personality tests and aptitude tests have long been standard practice in certain fields.

There is “no easy answer, else we’d be fixing it by now,” summarised Hugh Aitken of CBI Scotland in the Skills, Work & Enterprise seminar on day 1. This tied in very well with a meeting I’d had earlier in the day regarding the low number of women who undertake STEM Modern Apprenticeships…an analogy which suitably concludes my reflections on my last conference for a while. I am back off to my desk for the summer, with a PhD Literature Review to write, and in relation to gender and occupational segregation in apprenticeships, there is also no easy answer! 

9 May 2015

Apprenticeships and the New Government

The General Election campaigns are out of the way and it is time to look ahead to what the Conservatives proposed in relation to work, education and skills. What will they deliver in career education, advice and guidance, and specific initiatives to support young people into sustainable employment and relevant training over the next five years? There is of course one thing that every party talked about (endlessly, it seemed, at times): apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships for young people, if any of the party manifestos were to be believed, are going to solve a heck of a lot of problems. While my PhD looks at one specific programme of apprenticeships in Scotland, what I want to talk about in this post are apprenticeships in general. There are major challenges if they are to be used as the magic elixir they have been purported to be.

There are concerns about current apprenticeship provision: the percentage of people starting apprenticeships who are already over 25 (and therefore not ‘young’), numbers starting (high) and completing (not so high) their apprenticeship, their use as a shortcut to CPD provision, the inconsistency in length. These are just a few of the issues being raised, even before I get to my specialist topic of the gender inequality present in apprenticeships. 

The Conservative manifesto promised 3 million new apprenticeship starts over the course of this parliament. Let’s tell ourselves that, over the next five years, young apprentices will be recruited (openly and fairly) then retained on consistently high-quality programmes and will later go into sustained employment. Ahem. More on this ideal world at a later date (a world that is to be part-funded by bank fines, let's hope the banks don't adopt appropriate conduct any time soon.)

Of concern however, is that the Conservative manifesto proposal, which is soon to be implemented in full, states that some of the new 18-21 apprentices will be forced onto an apprenticeship. The Conservatives are looking to put young unemployed people onto a Youth Allowance, abolishing their entitlement to Jobseekers’ Allowance:
"We will replace the Jobseeker’s Allowance for 18-21 year-olds with a Youth Allowance that will be time-limited to six months, after which young people will have to take an apprenticeship, a traineeship or do daily community work for their benefits." (Conservatives, 2015, p10)
What message does this give out about apprenticeships? Regardless of whether the numbers who reach this stage may be small, the “threat” of being made to do an apprenticeship does nothing to tackle one of the major challenges that the apprenticeship system faces. It is this: “Apprenticeships are great, just not for my child.”

A recent Demos report The Commission on Apprenticeships (March 2015) highlighted challenges in relation to parental influence on young people who might become apprentices. It found that most parents think that apprenticeships are valuable, but not for their own children” (2015, p9). Of additional concern is the surveyed parents’ opinion that “apprenticeships are more suitable for low achievers than high achievers” (2015, p9). Exploring the findings a little further, it is revealed that “parents support apprenticeships enthusiastically in general terms, but remain less convinced that they are right for their own children” (2015, p87).

The Demos research shows that 92% of the parents interviewed think apprenticeships are great but only 32% of them want their child to do one. What do they want them to do instead? They want their children to undertake an academic, higher education route into the workplace, which they perceive as having higher status than vocational apprenticeships.

There are opposing ways to look at this. One is, these parents aren’t the type of people whose child would do an apprenticeship, because they think they and their offspring are ‘too good’ for them. An alternative is to consider that these parents are talking about aspiration; university opens doors to young people that vocational training doesn’t, even if there is a stable, technical or professional job at the end of it. There has been a sustained push to raise the number of young people going into higher education for some time, with the promise that the expense will pay off long-term. The roll-out of Degree Apprenticeships and proposed Advanced Apprenticeships (Scotland), may have some impact on this, albeit likely after a period of confusion as to what the new hybrid is.

Of much concern to those of us trying to tackle inequality within apprenticeship provision is how to raise the profile, status and esteem of apprenticeships overall. We must address how they are perceived. Presenting apprenticeships as a last chance for those deemed unemployable will do nothing to help the often skewed perception of what an apprenticeship programme is, can and should be. Parents and other family members, guardians, carers and friends are major influencers of young people’s career decisions and will absorb any negative positioning of apprenticeships, increasing their lower status to higher education routes. 

How apprenticeships function within the proposed Youth Allowance welfare policy needs careful consideration, as does the language to be used in promoting it, to avoid the potentially negative impact it could have upon apprenticeships. 

The Conservative Party Manifesto 2015 (2015) Conservatives: London
The Commission on Apprenticeships (2015) Demos: London. 

2 April 2015

SDS Annual Career Guidance Symposium 2015

On 19th March 2015, I delivered a workshop presentation on Doctoral Research into Career Education Information Advice and Guidance to attendees at the Skills Development Scotland Annual Career Guidance Symposium.

Photos and presentations from this event can be downloaded here.

28 March 2015

Putting women off politics? The 2015 General Election Campaign

The number of women turning out to vote in Britain is decreasing despite increases in female parliamentary candidates. In the past twelve months attempts to engage women voters include two heavily criticised examples: the ‘Better Together woman’ with her reminder to the women-folk of Scotland to vote No in the Independence Referendum and Labour’s Pink Bus tour encouraging women to vote in the forthcoming General Election. There has obviously been some research that says non-voting women might be engaged (rather than just enraged) by this. This type of marketing doesn't appeal to me but I've voted in every election I could since I turned 18; in the UK we can vote in a secret ballot, a basic right that is denied to so many women of the world. 

As a researcher into career choice, I'm keen to understand why women don't go into male dominated occupations. Positive role models are repeatedly cited as an example of good practice in balancing gender in segregated occupations and we have female leaders or deputy leaders in most political parties in the UK. Globally, Inter-Parliamentary Union research shows how 'Women's political participation has made progress over the years, but just not enough and not at a fast enough pace,' so why don’t enough women see politics as a career option?

Why would a woman go into politics in the UK when our prominent female politicians get more coverage in the mass media in relation to their personal life and appearance rather than their ability to do the job? Theresa May MP's cleavage, Ruth Davison MSP's sexual orientation and Nicola Sturgeon MSP's head imposed on half-dressed body have been newsworthy in recent weeks. (No, I am not going to insert links to these here). There is blatant 'everyday' sexism and a lingering fondness for the dated Carry On humour that makes us so proud to be British. Women in politics have to be tough. A blatantly outdated approach towards women is, sadly, still to be expected from the tabloids. It shouldn't however come in a more subtly undermining manner from our supposedly unbiased media outlets and equality-promoting leading politicians, as it has done so far during the 2015 General Election campaign, and there is one very clear example of this.  

Question: Who is the First Minister of Scotland and the leader of the SNP? 

The online news site of the BBC, the UK's public service broadcaster, and a few other high profile figures appear not to know.

Headline BBC news story 26/03/2015
after the Leaders’ TV debate.

I spotted this shortly after making my occasional mistake of watching last Thursday’s episode of Question Time on BBC1, the UK's best-known political TV show, which always sends me off to bed in a simmering rage. There is a general election in six weeks. The SNP could hold the balance of power in Westminster after this. The esteemed Question Time presenter, David Dimbleby, asked the leader of Scottish Labour Jim Murphy MP about the forthcoming general election and the SNP's Alex Salmond MSP.

A reminder of who Alex Salmond is. He is:
  • not the leader of the SNP
  • not the First Minister of Scotland
  • not (yet) elected as a Westminster MP
Nicola Sturgeon MSP, leader of the SNP and First Minster of Scotland, will make any decision in this political scenario. Did anyone mention her name once throughout the programme? No.

Why might UK women be discouraged from a career in politics in the future and why might women voters continue to be disengaged? Will the 2015 General Election campaign, in response to the recent surge in SNP support, have a continued negative influence on these issues, in its reinforcing of stereotypes of the past? 

The women of the UK, who political parties try so desperately to engage, are repeatedly being reminded of the First Minister's insignificance by the media and those within politics who don’t even mention her name. The Conservative party's election posters can't be misread: Alex Salmon MSP is more important than Nicola Sturgeon MSP, the leader of the SNP. He's on the posters, for a start, not her.

And what does that lead to? A perception that the female Leader of the SNP's male predecessor still pulls the strings, that he’s in charge really and that he only stepped down to let her have a little go at being the leader so he could come down to Westminster and be in a proper job. Young women with an interest in politics are repeatedly being informed that the most powerful woman in Scottish and UK politics is dominated and managed by a man. Why not embark on a career in politics so you too could be in the same position?

EDIT 05/04/15
This week Nicola Sturgeon appeared on the Leaders' Debate on TV, and was generally perceived positively as an astute politician. The Conservatives swapped Alex Salmond's image for Nicola Sturgeon in their posters. At last. Sadly however, today, the Daily Mail, the second highest circulated paper in the UK, have decided to run this unpleasant article, judging-once again-a woman on her appearance rather than her ability to do a job.

13 March 2015

SDS-SGSSS Collaborative PhD Programme Launch Event

Yesterday I attended the official launch and first networking event of The Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences (SGSSS) Collaborative PhD Programme in Glasgow.

As a recipient of one of the ESRC co-funded studentships my research into Gender and Modern Apprenticeships will contribute to this knowledge exchange programme between the academic community, policy makers and practitioners, that seeks to understand skills issues from a Scottish perspective.

More details on the event and the attendees can be found here.

photo emma bolger mike danson
Here I am with my supervisor, Prof. Mike Danson, demonstrating how much fun doing a PhD can be!

8 March 2015

News: Forthcoming Events/Presentations

I am six months into doctoral study, so it is time to make a start on expanding my research away from me, my desk and my supervisors by taking it to an academic and professional audience. I have two events over the next fortnight where I will be presenting the topics of my PhD to peers and practitioners.

The first of these two events is the inaugural networking event for the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) and Skills Development Scotland (SDS) Collaborative PhD Programme to be held on Thursday 12th March
I will meet the doctoral researchers who are funded under the same scheme as I am for the first time and in a poster presentation, we will be showcasing our research topics. There will also be a number of speakers to network with, including SDS Chief Executive Damien Yeates, Professor Simon Burnett of the SGSSS, Professor Tara Fenwick (ESRC) and Professor Ewart Keep (ESRC/Skope). 

SDS Annual Career Guidance Research Symposium 2015
On Thursday 19th March I will be presenting at this collaborative symposium, which is co-hosted by SDS, the University of the West of Scotland and Edinburgh Napier University. This year's theme is 'The Careers Adviser as Researcher. I am delighted to have been asked back to to speak about doctoral research in CEIAG at UWS as it is where I studied for the Qualification in Career Guidance and Development in 2011-12.

A synopsis of my presentation, Doctoral Research in CEIAG:
This workshop will introduce key areas in which doctoral research in Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance (CEIAG) has been undertaken in the last few years. We will discuss issues around accessing academic knowledge in CEIAG and the relevance of academic research to practitioners. I will introduce the SDS / Scottish Graduate School PhD programme and present an overview of my own PhD: Gender and Occupational Segregation in Modern Apprenticeships.

I will provide links to the day's papers after the event, but in the meantime, information on last year's event can be found here.

11 February 2015

The Public Purse

There are strong economic drivers for ‘better’ childcare. Childcare costs UK parents/guardians hard-earned cash for every hour used until free universal part-time places kick in for 3 and 4 year olds (earlier, at 2, for eligible parents) and a cost remains even then for full-time care if required. There are some parents who lose out financially by going back to work and having a child or children in childcare (and despite what the media would have us believe, many who persevere, for longer-term career development, despite this).

Okay, okay, already, by this point in this blog post, some readers will be ready to make One Of The Comments. Hold on, you’ll get a chance!

Would we be happier paying childcare costs if we had gold standard childcare? What would make us the ‘best’ in Europe? Well firstly, how to define ‘gold standard’? Words we use are: regulated, accessible, flexible. Childcare is expensive in the UK but quality is high compared to other nations in Europe. Universal childcare funding doesn’t automatically lead to reduced occupational segregation so to be the ‘best’ at it doesn’t just relate to the availability and quality of care, it is also crucial that the wider public understand the social and economic worth of childcare.

Not investing in childcare is not investing in women. It is women, in the main, who are able to return to work when childcare is available. It is women, primarily, who work frontline in the care sector and unless we place greater value on the work, the conditions, pay and the gender balance in the sector will not improve.

Yeah, yeah, you are reading this post but still have a fundamental objection to what I am talking about – it’s ok, your opportunity to make One Of The Comments will come.

This week, as we approach General Election season (AKA real life The Thick of It) the UK political parties are wheeling out their family friendly policies: More childcare! More time off and higher paternity pay for new dads! Ed Miliband isn’t  appearing on ITV flagship daytime show This Morning just to encourage more SAHMs to vote Labour because he's a great dad and it's nothing other than a personality contest. It is because, in the long term, childcare is a public good, for children, parents, the community and the economy.

I know, I know, but you’re an individual, and that’s different. Hold it in, for one more paragraph.

The UK does not currently have replacement level fertility (n.b.Scotland has the lowest level of the four nations). Would better (cheaper, more flexible, more accessible) childcare increase fertility rates? People are delaying having children and having smaller families, reasons that appear to be at the heart of this are cost, career and lifestyle choices. But find any story on a news website about child benefit payments and you’ll find 500 comments below it, the overwhelming number of these complaining about how this benefit should be scrapped. Child benefit is a cheek. Maternity pay takes liberties. Paternity pay is even worse. Is starting a family, one of the most personal of decisions, being influenced too heavily by the public's perception of parenting?

 OK, feel free to make One Of the Comments now* (*choose from any or all of the following):

You had the kid, you pay for it
I’m paying for other people’s children when I don't have any
I’m not allowed time off whenever I feel like it
Don’t have them if you can’t afford them
Childcare is an expense you have to suck up if you want a baby and a job
Women wanting their jobs back after maternity leave is a right effort all round
A comment of your own choosing to further demonstrate why one of the least deserving groups to receive any kind of universal benefit are parents and the country's next generation* (*here you might like to point out that there are certain 'breeders' who are even less deserving of help than others, and for whom sterilisation would be a better option)
A seemingly socially acceptable 'I'm not being funny but [insert insulting comment here]' variation on the above theme

As governments propose and bring into practice the policies that support the arguments around the greater benefits of childcare, how can we change the perception of the general public to raise the status of childcare and those who work in the sector? Well, I don’t have the answer, yet, but my PhD Literature Review might shed some light on this.

The issue is the perception of what ‘the public purse’ should and shouldn’t pay for, and the feeling that one person’s taxes are directly funding another’s ‘high life’ living. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I’m trying to find examples from real life to demonstrate issues, so here we go.

I’ve breastfed my 14 month old son to date. He was a huge baby (11lb+ at birth) with a huge appetite. I‘ve not had a negative comment about breastfeeding. Nobody has asked me to cover up a nipple or put a sheet over ‘it’ and I haven’t used a designated feeding space unless my little one was feeling fractious. It is exceptional, in my experience and the experience of the breastfeeding mothers I know, for a negative comment to be made. Breastfed children breastfeed a lot so there are many opportunities for comment should the general public be steaming with rage at the sight of a nipple. And I wonder if it is not because of equality that comments are kept at bay. I wonder if by breastfeeding I’m not seen to be impacting on the public purse.

I have, on the other hand, been made most unwelcome by customers in a café, on a day when it was pouring with rain, my baby was in his pram and I was visibly exhausted from walking him up and down the street to get him to sleep (hello to the two ladies in a café in Strathbungo who refused to even tuck a chair in to let me past let alone sit near them!). Was it because I was about to blow my child benefit/maternity pay on a decaf coffee?


Bonus Material!

These two small tales don't really bear as much direct relation to the above blog post but I also want to mention them because they happened and they were nice and you just don't get that much in life:

1)  The kindness that was shown to me in a well-known Swedish flat-pack furniture store.
I had a hungry, small (well, by his standards anyway) baby and I was in the middle of the café trying to settle and feed him. For ages. A male member of staff discreetly asked me if he could get me a drink from the self-service area. I offered to pay for it, he refused to let me.

2) The conversation of older ladies in a department store café.
I overheard them commenting, louder than they needed to because they wanted me to hear: “Isn’t that lovely to see? A young mum feeding her baby.” I think by “young” they presumed I am younger than I am – happy baby and a happy mummy, it was a double win that day! 

9 February 2015

Are you back at work? That’s great…

This going back to work business is nothing like as easy as it sounds. After you have a child, you don’t just ‘go back to work’ on a set date, at a set time and return to business as usual. Play does not continue as before. At first the novelty of it all and/or the immediate crisis management overshadows your ability to see past how the changes might be affecting you. You may be too guilty about the whole thing to deal with the impact of working plus parenting. By two months in, you are too tired to do anything about it and battle on.  At about the four month stage you realise you can’t really keep the charade up. By six months, something has to or likely already has changed. Oh and socialising with colleagues outside of work, no chance of that. It clashes, with everything. 

On returning to work after having a child/children, you spend a fair amount of time desperately trying to establish new routines, finding strategies to prevent you from losing your marbles entirely, and thinking about whether dual- or single-career parenting is really possible without beyond-full-time childcare. You find a small daily window in which to sleep, work out how and when you are going to access/share/juggle/pay for childcare, whilst ensuring that you and your family eat, wash and pay your bills.

As a family we are six months in from my return to work after our first child (Daddy went back after two weeks of paternity leave and week of saved-up annual leave. Although if some of the comments I've read this morning in response to this BBC news item are to be taken to heart, the cheek of him being able to do this is "beyond belief"). 

We had the additional issue of not having any childcare at all until last week. Even with 14.25 hours of childcare in place and although I mainly work from home, it still isn’t enough for me to study full-time, keep up my part-time job and take on the extra, often contract-based, work that comes my way (or in simpler terms, maintain a career with momentum to it) and be a mummy. Daddy is moving to a 17.5 hours per week job so he can take on a greater share of childcare and I can study and work in a more reasonable time frame, i.e. not from 6pm to midnight, from 7am to whenever-our-son-wakes-up-o’clock, and around ad-hoc naptimes (did I mention there is also a daily mountain of washing, a home to keep clean and a small person to entertain, educate, wash and feed?). If you are reading this and thinking, "Yes, but you decided to have a child," I urge you to return in the coming week and read my next blog post, about how society is undervaluing the potential impact of the UK's below replacement fertility rate.

We are quite happy with our new set up. It finally offers me the flexibility I need for my work and career and enables my husband to spend more time with our son who he (most importantly for us) now gets to co-parent more fully. However, there is a bigger issue, outside of our little family: one half of our parenting unit is about to half leave the labour market.

By reducing my husband’s working hours to allow us this balance (did I mention we will also get time to spend together, In The Same Room, during daylight hours?) we’re also reducing our need for childcare, which means we’re reducing the need for a member of staff in a nursery to care for our son. I know that if we all used more childcare, there would be more people employed in childcare which might raise the status of the profession, the availability and the quality and flexibility of early years childcare overall (although I can’t fault the quality of the nursery care my son is getting), but we didn’t have a child so that he could go into full-time childcare from the off; we wanted to spend time with him while he was small. We like children! That’s why we had one! 

We need, as do most families, fully flexible work and flexible childcare–which is still a long way off–that enables us to work and spend time with our child at a time of the day when we aren’t good for little other than eating and sleeping. So we find work and careers than can still grow and fit in around a small person and what childcare is currently available to best meet our needs and enable us to have a good family life. I'm having the continuing, post-motherhood career than many women before me couldn't and that other women and men have enabled me to have, through progressive legislation leading to changes in attitude. 

Our story is, in many ways, most parents’ story: we visited umpteen nurseries until we found one we were happy with and sat on a waiting list until a place became available (the delay compounded in our case by moving house around the time we wanted him to start and having to re-start the process from scratch after he had settled somewhere). We liked several nurseries. Then we read the inspection reports, or worked out how long it’d take to get there each day, or checked the prices and something cropped up. Our little one has gone into a council affiliated nursery close to our home. The fees are a third less per session than the fully private ones which means we’ve been able to put him in for three rather than two sessions per week. It’s within walking distance (childcare cost isn’t just childcare, it’s the cost of getting there if it isn’t on your way to or from work/home). Also, the only note on the most recent inspection report was that the afternoon snack wasn’t as healthy as it could be. It’s better than we offer at home a lot of the time! Nursery standards are high.

Our little one, despite the ordeal he has had to go through settling-in, is getting on very well (he has never been with anyone other than Mummy or Daddy for more than a couple of hours). For a fourteen month old person a five hour stretch away from who and what he knows must be terrifying. The staff have him settled, playing happily and he was asleep in one of their arms when we collected him on Friday, after his “best day yet.” At nursery they can give him what we can’t at home: messy play and other children being two examples. He is already more confident with our friends, more willing and able to stomp around, explore and assert himself. I am, as the cliché goes, ‘feeling much better in myself’ for him being there. So we’ve sorted ourselves out, six months after me officially ‘going back after maternity leave.’ Not six hours or six days after it, as might be believed.  

There is one other thing that I wish was different though: there aren’t any men in my son’s nursery. In all of the nurseries we visited, there were two male members of staff, both working in the same facility. We have a huge problem encouraging young men into a career in early years care. Until he starts school and maybe meets one of the rare male primary school teachers, outside of the home most of my son’s carers will be women, very well qualified, caring, affectionate women. There is no reason why a man cannot do this job.

Why are there so few men in childcare? When a friend of mine had a baby a few years ago, my husband wasn’t working and looked after the baby when required (like us, she had no other means of ad-hoc care other than to rely on friends). Everyone he met presumed my husband was the father, because why else would a man look after a child?

Why aren’t men caring for our children in nurseries? Is it the low pay in the sector? A misplaced, sinister suspicion about the motives of men who want to care for children? Because it is a ‘woman’s’ job? This brings me back to my PhD, where in a small way I hope to shed some light on this issue and suggest ways in which we can encourage more men in ‘women’s jobs.’

In researching why and how we need to eradicate gender segregation, I’m trying to demonstrate how these changes would affect us all, on an individual basis, in daily life, making our lives better (a friend recently asked, “Yes, but why do we need to do this? What's wrong with women doing some jobs and men doing others?” and I realised only practical examples can covey this, quickly, over a bottle of beer or a cup of tea).

So, in relation to men and childcare my example will be simple: I want to see a male member of staff picking up and cuddling my son at nursery when he cries. I want to see men taking turns on the rota to do my son’s mid-afternoon nappy change. I want to see a man stamping in the puddles in the nursery garden with my son. I want my son to see a man undertaking the hugely important professional caring role. I want see more men guiding our little ones as they start their lives. I want gender-balanced role models, in every sector, especially those our children have most contact with during their early years. 

And in turn I want everyone who works in childcare to know how valued they are by parents like us, who without them would have far fewer opportunities to develop and prosper after starting a family. 

23 January 2015

It’s 2015! What will 2030 look like?

“Read as much and as widely as you can,” is an early piece of general advice given to those starting out on a PhD project. So I have been. Thoroughly enjoyable but I am a person who, once I start reading something I then see something else I’m interested in and I end up having to know all about that in detail before going back to the thing I was originally reading about. I’ve been reading about the future and what it might be like. Wide you say? I’m looking at infinity. My poor brain!

Management PhD research (at least, in my topic area) needs to address not only the current situation but to also look at what the problems of the future might be. “Now” moves on to become “then” very quickly in life and before you know it, it’s Friday evening and everyone is wondering why there’s nothing in for dinner. Producing best practice suggestions and practical ideas for positive action in reducing gender and occupational segregation requires an understanding of where we are going and what it’s going to look like when we get there.

Predicting the future isn’t easy. Think back to childhood, watching Tomorrow’s World on BBC and imaging what the world would be like when we were grown up. There would be monorails everywhere. We’d all have jetpacks. And video phones (actually, I suppose we do have that). We’d eat powdered food like astronauts (yuk). And recycle more (getting there). We got it partly right. Although add to this that we are now in the year that Marty McFly and Doctor Emmet Brown travelled forward to in Back to the Future. Most of this future-tech would still be well received, even if it was beyond idealistic, parodied best in BBC TV show, Look Around You.

To our future as we see it now: if some reports are to be believed, by 2050 we’ll all be working from pods in our spare bedrooms, the physical office won’t exist anymore and a typical working day might pass without an employee meeting another person face to face. There will be more automation. (Beware the robots? This struck home for me recently when debating a lawnmower purchase, I discovered there is a sub-category of Robotic lawnmowers).

The UKCES report, The Future of Work: Jobs and skills in 2030 (2014) gives us some idea of where we are going. Forecasting change isn’t easy:
Yet, the way we think about tomorrow influences what we do today. We do not have definitive answers about what is around the corner but we can try to systematically make sense of the direction of travel in the labour market and assess the key uncertainties that we know exist. By analysing developments in the UK labour market now, we can start to position ourselves for the work needs and opportunities of the future. (2014: iv)
The labour market will change, due to societal, environmental, technological, economic and political arenas. There will be predictable and unknown challenges.

The world progresses (some might say it just changes, and question what exactly the nature of progress really is). Perhaps the most obvious way we experience this is technologically; it’s easily seen. At the same time society advances around us, less tangible. Sometimes change happens quickly in response to environmental or economic issues while we accept new ideas and reject old thinking on a gradual basis. Within social research we predict what we can, as far as we can, with as much conviction and evidence as possible. With that in mind, I suppose the main thing I learned from Tomorrow’s World was that nothing in the future will go entirely to plan: “This worked perfectly well in rehearsal.”

So, will gender inequality continue to reduce, albeit slowly, until it is naturally eradicated? Well, the answer to that will be a chapter in the Literature Review of my PhD thesis. In there I won’t be able to write a sightly abstract, amusing, or straight-to-the point answer so I’ll do it here:

Naturally eradicated? Where’s my hoverboard, Doc?

UK Commission for Employment and Skills (2104) The Future of Work: Jobs and skills in 2030