18 October 2018

Career planning for expectant and new mums

Over the past year, throughout the period of being pregnant with and then having my second child, I’ve discovered that very little career development support exists for new or expectant mothers. Perhaps because it is assumed that we don’t want or need it. I would argue that this period is, in fact, when career information advice and guidance interventions should be considered essential.

For starters, the assumption is that we are happy in our work, and that we’ve chosen to have children when work is stable, or that we are riding the storm and plan to use maternity leave as an excuse to get out and never return. But women do want to work, indeed have to, around very small children. While financial considerations might be paramount, they should be equally weighted with mothers’ own emotional needs, which, if career is a lifelong process that incudes periods of education, work and caring, we forget are directly related to her career development.

Straw poll time, I know, but I have two close friends who also had children this year around the same time as me. One is back at work as she runs her own business / is self-employed and the other has changed jobs (paying back a chunk of maternity pay in the process - disproving how women on mat’ leave “cost the business”) to something that better suits around health conditions and a small child. For the three of us, there's been not a suggestion that careers advice is something we might need at this stage (OK two of us are qualified careers professionals, but regardless …). Both times I’ve had children I’ve had a well-planned return to work lined up but many women have no idea what comes next after childbirth, aside form 18 years of raising a child.

Figures on the average duration of maternity leave are quite difficult to obtain but suggest that a full 12 months off work are far from the norm. And further complicating any figures is that many women don’t return to work after childbirth because their work no longer suits. And as soon as the first child is out, there comes the inevitable next question, about when you are planning to have another. If another is on your radar, there’s plenty of “good advice” (aka speculation and ill-evidenced hearsay) online about child spacing and how long to best leave it without utterly destroying your children’s well-being or your own career, for new mums to read during the night-feeds.

What do I suggest? Indeed, what have I suggested to my local health board when they asked for my feedback on my experience of having my second child? A strong starting point would be careers service involvement in health visitor programme. For example, offering a CV clinic at baby club and referrals to careers services. Prior to maternity leave all employers should offer a maternity leave interview rather than leave women to complete the paperwork and wait for the pink, blue or yellow cupcakes to arrive during their last week. And my own bugbear is shops selling cards that say, “You’re leaving to have a baby.” Leaving? Is it still the olden days and the law says I can’t come back? We need to stop discouraging mums of young babies to work and we need to stop making those of us who come back “early” (see previous post!) feel like we’ve done something so unbelievably out of the ordinary that life has to be tough.

4 October 2018

Breastfeeding and returning to work "early"

I am one month into being back at work, and the wee one has turned 4 months old. Given the amount of times friends and colleagues have asked me about my return to work, accompanied by a concerned look, it’s pretty clear that the general understanding of when you go back “early” is that it's not easy and it’s out of the ordinary. A quick definition of “early” is required here: there is a difference between early (in relation to the generally accepted duration of maternity leave) and too soon. I went back when I was ready. The challenge has been breastfeeding around my work.

My workplace is ok: I have the option to work flexibly and there is a feeding / expressing room on campus should I need it. I’ve not needed it yet, because I have a private office space and I have a husband on shared parental leave bringing the wee one in to be fed during my breaks and at lunchtime when I am on campus. My daughter, one week after I returned to work, decided she didn’t want to take a bottle of expressed milk after all, which at the most dramatic point involved me having to leg it out of my office, into the passenger seat of the car as Mr B pulled in on the main road outside and shortly after whacking a boob out in a layby a few streets away whilst downing an M&S meal deal.

It was dramatic, it was quite funny and it’s an anecdote to pass on to friends and the wee one when she is older, but there is a serious other side to this beyond the legislative compliance of my employer and my own practical organisation around feeding my wee one. It is that however well planned your return and how accommodating your workplace is, babies are unpredictable. 

My anecdote to friends, when they ask about what returning to work has been like, ends with this: the woman in the lay-by, wearing breastfeeding friendly work clothes, trying not to get mayo and breast milk all over herself and checking through emails on her phone isn’t the image we get in the breastfeeding literature. It certainly isn’t the image we get in the mainstream media, where the breastfeeding mother is generally found dressed in white, lying on a bed bedecked with white bedding. Search online for an image of a “breastfeeding group” and you’ll get a mass of photos of women knocking about in casual clothes, looking off duty. Google “breastfeeding working mum” and you get pages of half-comedic shots of mums holding babies over their laptops, usually in bed, wearing a business suit and heels whilst resting on those white sheets. None of it is realistic for the working mum, whose main considerations include no going over-time unexpectedly at work, because your boobs just can’t take it and never being more than two paces from a packet of baby wipes. 

Further in my favour is that I have a good milk supply and I’ve not encountered any challenges directly related to the process of breastfeeding itself. What if I had struggled with my milk supply or any other of the predictable and unpredictable challenges breast feeding can pose? Where could I have gone for help? Well, for in-person support, the answer is nowhere, because as I have discovered, community breastfeeding support isn't set up for women who go back to work “early.” NHS and other services for breastfeeding new mothers work from the assumption that we are all off for an extended period and can wander along during the day for a chat. Sure, my employer would give me time off if I needed it but how many other women would be comfortable asking for time off? And then the question is, who would they meet as a peer supporter? A full-time working mum, a true peer, just like them?

I breastfed my older child until he was two. I’ve been asked to become a breastfeeding peer mentor, but how does a working full-time mum find time to be the mentor women like me desperately need? Training is during the daytime for a number of weeks and while the commitment for a peer mentor varies, some ask for two-three hours a week, at set times, in the local community. Breastfeeding mums like me who are back at work can’t do this. For working breastfeeding women, it’s helplines and online chat-only to solve breastfeeding challenges, despite research demonstrating how face-to-face support is hugely beneficial to breastfeeding mothers.

How to solve this issue? I would suggest breastfeeding cafes / group support in the evenings and weekends, training working mums like me for breastfeeding peer support in the evenings and at weekends and some funding to develop breastfeeding support groups in the workplace. 

3 October 2018

IAEVG - Poster

I am unable to attend the IAEVG conference in Gothenburg this week, as I am currently navigating work and life around* a four month old baby.

A poster summarising my PhD research, titled "Addressing gendered career decision-making: adapting career guidance and counselling practice to the contemporary family unit" is on display at the conference in my absence and can also be viewed below.

*quite literally - right now she's on my lap trying to get to the keyboard of my PC!

18 September 2018

Academic FOMO

I had a perfectly timed academic baby this year: she arrived the first weekend in June, just before the quieter period, where academics with greater teaching responsibilities in the first two trimesters of the academic year get on with (amongst other tasks) writing papers and undertaking research. You'd be surprised by how many of us “coincidentally” time things just right when growing a family to keep our academic careers on track, whilst acknowledging that any time out is a risk.

I've missed out on a lot of excellent conferences in my field this summer-autumn, including turning down presentation spots that would've been REF-able and good to have on my CV. I'm back at work but attending events away from Scotland is becoming increasingly tricky. I'm not averse to taking one or both children with me, and their dad. Like many academics, a conference trip often becomes an opportunity for a “workcation” for me with the family in tow. Plenty of folk have met my entourage already, and now it's expanded.

But it has suddenly become much more difficult; my eldest recently started school and I've returned from maternity leave “early”. That is, when my child is barely out of the newborn stage, (breast)feeding around the clock and still somewhat unpredictable. I'm increasingly reminded of how unusual it is that I took only 16 weeks off, even within academia, where short maternity leave is prevalent - more on this in future blog posts! The baby doesn't yet have a passport, however inclined she and I might be to turning up to a conference with her in a baby carrier, where woe-betide anyone taking issue with her presence (I've said many times before how there really are minimal adjustments needed to accommodate babies within academic environments). The requirements of my face-to-face teaching and annoyingly complex flight connections to seemingly easy-to-reach European locations have in fact been the main barriers. Why? Because the potential for a flight being cancelled is enough to put you off a convoluted trip with a baby in tow and potentially unsuitable sleeping environments, or with one left at home in need of breast milk.

The family can't always come along now, because one of them is in school and I'm a firm believer in children only missing out on their education when it is essential. At 4 years old, selling the “cultural experience” opportunity is still a bit premature for my son, although he did get to spend his 4th birthday in two different Nordic cities, while mummy (who was battling morning sickness at the time…) worked. It's a familiar story though: extended family are the main providers of childcare in the country, but if, like us, you don't have a queue of healthy, local, time-rich relatives nearby things have to slide. It seems like, as ever, the issue is the same and both the problem and the solution are summed up in one word: childcare.

Despite all of this, I count myself lucky: I already have a permanent academic post and can make these choices not to attend. There are many parents for whom missing out on a conference slot has the potential for greater detriment.

With one child cutting about in his school uniform, the other being (as in, right now) in my arms pretty much every moment I'm not on campus teaching, in meetings or working from home at my desk, I’m reminded of how fast times passes, of how soon they aren't so wee and don't need you as much. But it's always going to be emotionally challenging, when you see colleagues trotting off to cities you'd quite like to see on your way to a speaking slot, and Fear Of Missing Out, or Academic FOMO as I'm referring to it, creeps in.

My research and teaching focuses on how all career decisions are complex and multi-faceted. Due to my subject area, I'm aware I am perhaps more explicitly and overtly making choices in relation to my career path at present and trying to make those decisions visible, as they affect academic women more than men. Yes, there will always be other conferences and no, there won't always be first babbles, first sideways rolls, first crawls, first steps. But turning down opportunities, in the current climate in academia, isn't easy.

6 September 2018

Conference Poster - Encouraging workforce diversity in our sector

I am unable to attend this week's NICE network conference in Krakow - I have a 3 month old baby at home and travel at present is difficult plus it is both my first week back after maternity leave and the first week of our new academic year at UWS in Paisley.

It is really disappointing to miss this superb conference but I have sent a poster for display in my absence: "Addressing under-representation in our sector: Recruiting more diverse employee groups to Career Information, Advice and Guidance roles" which details a new project we are looking to establish in Scotland, focusing on how we address under-representation in the training routes that lead to the career development professions.

Krakow Poster

Nomination - Scotland's Diversity Awards 2018

Very pleased to announce I have been nominated and shortlisted for the Rising Star category of Scotland's Diversity Awards 2018, for my work and research on equality and inclusion as a lecturer in Career Guidance and Development at UWS. The university's media release is included below.

Diversity Awards News Story

Media release
05 September 2018


The University of The West of Scotland (UWS) has been shortlisted for ‘Diversity In The Public Sector Award’ and the ‘Rising Star Diversity Award’ in The Herald and GenAnlytics Diversity Awards 2018.

One of UWS’ core Truths is to be “an inclusive organisation that welcomes and values diversity” and as Scotland’s largest modern university, UWS is widely recognised as one of the country’s leading institutions in widening participation in Higher Education.

This major, national diversity award recognises organisations and individuals for demonstrating a commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion. In being shortlisted for ‘Diversity in the Public Sector’ the university has clearly displayed its commitment to encouraging people from the widest possible range of backgrounds to access Higher Education.

Leading from the top is Vice Principal Professor Craig Mahoney who created the UWS Inspiring Women Series, now in its fifth year. The series was designed to empower staff and students to reach for new opportunities and enhance their professional pathways. Over the years, the programme has evolved with different Schools within UWS hosting talks under the ‘UWS Inspiring Women’ banner, embedding the practice throughout the university.

In addition, UWS has supported wider equality initiatives, establishing equality staff groups and a female leadership programme which encourages women in academic and professional roles to think of themselves as leaders, to develop leadership skills, and to help institutions maximise their potential.

Shortlisted for the coveted ‘Rising Star Diversity Award’ is UWS early career lecturer Emma Bolger. Emma has been pivotal in redeveloping the university’s MSc in Career Guidance and Development, guaranteeing that equality and inclusion are at its core.

Emma is co-writing a new Advance HE Equality and Diversity in the Curriculum practice guide for all course leaders. She has implemented a redesign of the placement programme ensuring they are also available within diversity and inclusion organisations and has established a family-friendly timetable for those with caring commitments.

She has delivered external training in equality in career guidance alongside her timetabled teaching and she has established a regular open-access diversity seminar programme, open to internal staff and external practitioners. She has secured external advisory roles, and is part of the advisory panel for the Scottish Women’s Aid Building Employability Project.

Professor Craig Mahoney, Principal & Vice-Chancellor, UWS said: “We are absolutely thrilled to have been shortlisted for two Diversity Awards. The ‘Diversity in the Public Sector Award’ is a real coup and highlights all that we do as a university to ensure we widen participation and open up Higher Education to as many people as possible regardless of age, gender or background.

“In addition, huge congratulations must go to Emma Bolger for being shortlisted in the ‘Rising Star’ category, this is a real accolade and is testament to her tireless efforts and consistent work to champion diversity. She has helped to implement real change here at UWS and she has inspired so many staff and students, as well as other individuals who come into contact with her.”

The Herald and GenAnlytics Diversity Awards 2018 in association with Standard Life Aberdeen take place on Thursday, October 11 at The Radisson Blu Hotel, Glasgow.

For more information, please contact Lauren Gaston / Naomi Clark, Marketing and Communications Officer at UWS, on 0141 849 4230 / firstname.lastname@uws.ac.uk
Notes to Editors:
About University of the West of Scotland

University of the West of Scotland is one of Scotland’s largest modern universities. It aims to have a transformational influence on the economic, social and cultural development of the West of Scotland, and beyond, by providing relevant, high quality, inclusive higher education and innovative and useful research. The University aims to make the communities it serves more successful; and create opportunities for all to participate.

4 September 2018

Modern Apprentice Survey - Gaelic language Version

A Gaelic language version of my survey of Modern Apprentices (MAs) in Scotland, is now available. The survey is about the personal and family background of apprentices, and I am researching how and why people make the career decision to become an apprentice.

Gaelic language version: https://hw.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/ma-background-survey-gaelic-language-version

If you are an MA, know an MA or manage / train MAs, please ask them to complete my survey! Anyone completing the survey has the chance of winning one of 5 x £20 gift vouchers. 

31 August 2018

The end of maternity leave - the start of a new routine?

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a proper blog post, so here I am, attempting to get back into the swing of it. There’s a simple reason why I have the headspace and time to do so: I had a baby at the start of June.

That’s probably not what you’d expect to come at the end of that sentence. Maternity leave is meant to be all about sleepless nights, being covered in milk/wee/poop, fighting extreme tiredness, trying to entertain a baby, right? Yes, there has been a lot of washing, nappy changing, wondering when I last ate or showered or managed to leave the house in less than an hour. But it’s also been a welcome break from the demands of my work, which had pretty much overtaken my life for the last 3+ years, in every moment when I wasn’t also co-parenting a lively toddler who turned into an even livelier pre-schooler. There is nothing like an enforced period of total confinement, of being “tied down” to a new baby who needs you 100% of the time, to force you to reset.

Not least, because I am taking such a short amount of leave by general standards (3 months, and in new baby terms, the time period often referred to as the 4th trimester) I’ve appreciated every moment of it, whilst still being aware that my brain has had to stay in gear to some extent so the jump back into full-time work next month isn’t too harsh.

I would call it far from a sabbatical (my maternity leave was wonderfully well timed-again-to tie in with a football World Cup and a very hot summer) but I have been taking stock and planning ahead. Having a baby in your arms, feeding or sleeping, forces you to be more mindful, in the sense of at least having more thinking time.

I’ve had a busy few years. The last 12 months in particular have been demanding. But I have to give myself credit, while I might not yet have my PhD, after just over a year of doing it, I landed the job I’d hoped to get in the years after I completed it (and in my previous job I had already delivered major projects on a nationwide level linked to the research I was doing). Some might say that’s the careers adviser in me proving I am the best at what I train others to do. I might respond with, “Be careful what you wish for!” as doing a PhD whilst working as a full-time lecturer is no easy feat.

There is something special about being “trapped” by a baby during bedtime and night-time feeds. There’s no pressure on what else you might be doing, because your baby is number 1. I am happier and more content than ever. But there is something else of key importance that has happened since I have been on maternity leave: I’ve not been ill. Not one sniffle or sore throat, no more recurring tonsillitis, coughs, colds or similar. Now, I could attribute this to the glorious summer, or I could say it’s the lack of stress, despite the newborn in my arms and the P1 child dealing with the demands of starting school. It’s the lack of extra hours put in outwith normal working time, desk-time and the thinking about work or study even when you aren’t working or studying. I’m fearful my return to work next week after my maternity leave might lead straight on to recurring low level maladies. I’ve certainly had a lot of time to think and read about the impact of children on working women’s (and PhD students’) careers, mental health and general well-being.

This recent article in The Times hit home for me more than anything else. There is something in this piece for every working parent, albeit that the article’s focus is on the working mum. It spoke to me because it is not just about the mum with a full-time job, but the mum with a full-time+ job. There’s nothing I can say that the author hasn’t already said or alluded to in this article, and for once I urge you *to* read the comments. I’m very much looking forward to reading The Mother of All Jobs: How to Have Children and a Career and Stay Sane(ish) which will be published, coincidentally, upon my return to work from maternity leave on September 6. So rather than repeat what we know but often don’t say, we working mums must take our own positive action to counteract the “big little lies.”

Demanding work in its many forms needs to be compatible with having a family, but it is for the working mothers amongst us with the ability to be vocal about how we create that work-life balance and continue to progress in our careers to shout the loudest. And we must do that without ‘sugar coating’ or pretending we are managing better than we are. By stating facts about the sacrifices and the ups and downs of successful careers and parenting.

But first a few facts, because I am not the superwoman I might appear to be and it is down to circumstance as well as the meticulous career planning I have to espouse, due to being one of only a handful of permanent full-time lecturers in career guidance and development in the UK (come on, I wasn’t going to write this blog post and not highlight how if we all had better access to life-long career decision-making support people’s career satisfaction might improve).

  • The only reason I can go back to work next week and continue to progress in my career is because I have a husband who works part-time and him taking shared parental leave makes financial and career sense
  • I can work flexibly, and do not have to be in my office from 9-5 every day of the week
  • I have space to have a home office where I can shut myself away (although my eldest child has recently taken to coming and demanding I leave, so he can get on with his “important work” of drawing and writing his name)
  • My life is time-managed to the extreme.

I’m doing well, but I have missed out on a lot of family time through work over the past 5 years since becoming a parent. How could things be easier? I started a long point here noting how we don’t have relatives nearby to provide free flexible childcare, the cost of childcare, the availability of childcare etc. etc. but do you know what, let’s just sum it all up quite simply and say: because childcare. Everything would be easier if childcare options were better. We must keep lobbying for it, even if the consensus across those dreaded comments sections is that if you have kids you just have to suck it up. Whatever “it” might be and regardless of the importance of the existence of a future generation equipped to support us in our dotage.

What can I practically do then? It’s simple and it is the scourge of the life of all academics: I need better boundaries around my work time. I need to be strict about email downtime, no picking up stuff at weekends however “urgent” it might be, not carrying on until midnight to get something pressing done. Serendipitously, my laptop (used around the house, out and about, and pretty much chaining me to my work when I’m not even at my home or workplace desk…) broke during my maternity leave. I’ve not yet replaced it.

28 August 2018

Modern Apprentice Survey

I am currently running a survey of Modern Apprentices (MAs) in Scotland as part of my PhD research. The survey is about the personal and family background of apprentices, and I am researching how and why people make the career decision to become an apprentice. 

If you are an MA, know an MA or manage / train MAs, please ask them to complete my survey! Anyone completing the survey has the chance of winning one of 5 x £20 gift vouchers. 

A pre-work return to work

I made a trip onto campus today to visit the office, with the baby in tow. It was lovely to brighten up people’s days with a happy 12 week old over lunchtime!

While I was also able to download 3 months’ worth of Windows updates in advance of actually being able to do anything at my desk from next week it also reminded me of how important keep in touch (“KIT”) days are to employees on maternity, paternity, shared parental and parental leave.

I may have “only” taken 12 weeks off and remain aware of key things happening in relation to my work (not least with some time put towards my PhD when it’s been possible around a newborn) but it is only natural for anyone to have some back to work anxiety after a period of parental leave.

I’ve often heard of KIT days being little more than people being required to “put a shift in” at work. They are however much more than that, and for me, my trip in today was a reminder that both work and me are fundamentally the same after a summer of big changes. As well as having a new addition to the family, my eldest child also started school this month.

Managing work around a 3 month old baby (not least one who I plan to exclusively breastfeed for as long as possible) will be demanding, but with shared parental leave to ease that burden and today’s time to actually think about the new dynamic in and around my working life, angst that might have crept in has been assuaged and I can enjoy my last week off with my still very new wee one.

14 August 2018

Forthcoming poster presentations

I have two poster presentations coming up at conferences this autumn:
Due to my return from maternity leave and having a small, still nursing baby, I will be unable to attend in person, however will have a representative beside my poster at these conferences. 

Copies of the posters will be uploaded here afterwards. 

4 May 2018

Paper Presentation: Equality Challenge Unit Conference Scotland 2018

On Wednesday 25th April 2018, Marjorie McCrory and I delivered a paper presentation at the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) Conference Scotland.

The slides for Professional Education in Career Guidance and Development: placing equality and diversity activity at the forefront of curriculum design and programme delivery are available on the ECU website at: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/events/innovation-change-impact-scotlands-conference-2018/

Photos from the day to follow...

12 January 2018

Career Matters Article, January 2018 issue

An article written by myself and Marjorie McCrory will be featured in this month's issue of Career Matters, the Career Development Institute's professional publication. 

In our article, The Medium is the Message: Taking a Career Development Approach to Curriculum Design and Delivery at the University of the West of Scotland, we talk about the changes we have brought to the MSc Career Guidance and Development at UWS over the past year since we took over and our rationale for doing so.