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Change comes from the top

Louise Brittain

08 March 2018

When I became pregnant with my first child, I was a partner at a medium-sized accountancy practice. I thought little of it at the time, but my announcement resulted in the firm having to hurriedly change its partnership deed to include maternity leave. In a Top 20 firm of accountants, I was the first female partner to have had children.

That was only a little over 10 years ago.

Having held senior positions at both medium and large accountancy practices for over 30 years, I still struggle to answer the question “how can I have everything?”, but it seems to me that this is the wrong question.

What we should be asking is “how can I do everything?”. How can I raise a family properly, have a career, compete with my peers (the vast majority of whom are men)? And how can I contribute to both the professional and personal areas of my life as I would like to?

I still struggle to find a simple answer to this question. However, to me one of the biggest hurdles is that, despite vast changes in working practices, the way we measure a person’s contribution has barely evolved in the last 20 years.

In many firms, the primary measure is still inputs, not outputs or outcomes. The number of hours spent in the office is what is noticed, and responsibilities outside work are rarely taken into consideration. Meetings are still arranged outside office hours and availability at weekends is often expected.

In this day and age can we honestly say that these are the right measures? Put me up against any of my peers and I bet I can produce more in an hour as a result of concentration of mind, decision-making ability and efficiency than most others.

Then there is caring for dependents outside of work. Of course, biology and culture often create an expectation that the woman bears this additional responsibility. But if we want to see more talented, experienced women excel in the work place, we must all work together to make it possible.

Apart from the cost of childcare, juggling rotas and arranging cover at short notice all take up huge amounts of time. That said, the issue is not about resources but is actually about awareness. If childcare were better integrated with the workplace, there would be far more appreciation of what needs to happen just to get through the door in the morning. My day starts at 5.30am, so by the time I get to the office at 9am, I am almost half-way through what for many would be a standard day.

This requires a more fundamental cultural change. Many of us don’t want, or cant afford, to work in job shares or part time positions. What we do want is an understanding of the additional responsibilities we carry and appreciation of what we achieve during the valuable hours we do have in the office. If our senior co-workers never have to think about childcare, how can we expect them to appreciate its impact in the work place? While I think it’s unlikely that our employers make an actual contribution towards the care costs wouldn’t it be great if they were at least tax deductible?

A colleague booked her son into half-term camp so she could work. As this required collecting him at a set time every day, she asked her managing partner whether she would be needed to work at any other locations that week. She was happy to make other arrangements but was assured that it would not be required. Shortly before camp started the partner asked her to work at another office. Calmly, she said she could – but only if he would collect her son on that particular day. To his credit, he did– even though he was so concerned about forgetting that he enlisted the help of two support staff to ensure he left the office on time. I am sure he is now more aware of the obligations many of us face outside work.

Leaving at the same time every day does not necessarily mean you are less committed. The biggest luxury I gave up to have a family was unpaid overtime. Ensuring you leave the office at a certain time is stressful – be it for the nursery dash, the dinner dash or whatever obligations you have outside work. My nursery kept a late parent list … Oh the shame!

For all the clever people that this industry employs, can we really not find a right solution that works for both individuals and businesses? Many businesses say they are flexible, but I still see the old measures of hours worked etc still included in the assessment for those who deserve promotion.

If businesses are to genuinely evolve, change must come from the top. That can only happen in a culture that appreciates the value of what people contribute while at work rather than the time spent working.


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