Part-time high flyers: A tale of two women

Last Friday, the social enterprise and jobsite Timewise published its third annual 'Power Part Time List', which celebrates people in high powered jobs across multiple industries who have managed to juggle successful careers with vibrant and rewarding home lives. Among those to be celebrated last week were Mary Whenman, managing director of corporate, financial and public affairs at Weber Shandwick, and Alex MacLaverty, group managing director of Hotwire PR. These are their two stories.

Alex MacLaverty (left) and Mary Whenman are both part-time high flyers
Alex MacLaverty (left) and Mary Whenman are both part-time high flyers
Mary Whenman worked part-time for more than ten years since she became pregnant with her first son and, later, with twins. She continues to work part-time, working at Weber Shandwick four-and-a-half days a week.

"I decided the best way to go part-time was to set myself up as a senior interim consultant and go and work on the projects I found particularly interesting. I took six months' maternity leave with my first son and then began working three days a week on variety of interim assignments for five or six years.

Later, I was offered a maternity leave contract with Grayling and I only went to 4.5 days a week in my present role when my children went to school.

Women need to really understand what their motivators are at different points of their careers. My motivator at that point was that I didn’t want to work full-time.

I wanted to still work in a good role but on three days a week.

Don’t pretend to yourself that you want to work full-time when you actually want to spend more time at home with your children – likewise, spending time with your children doesn’t mean you can’t keep your hand in with your career.

I think that, when you do work flexibly, you have to be prepared to flex yourself – it’s a two-way street.

When the business demands it, I will flex my arrangements and come into the office if I need to and put in place arrangements at home to enable me to do that.

Broadly speaking, compared with other industries, we’re doing a lot right.

My experience has been in large agencies, which have got far more capacity to handle those arrangements.

It can be more challenging for small to medium-sized agencies because they have fewer staff and suddenly that puts more pressure on people.

It’s down to the individual leadership in each agency and their attitude towards it.

There are always going to be pockets of the industry where it’s more challenging than others.

My personal experience hasn’t been one of challenging men as I’ve gone up the ladder.

I know that’s not every woman’s experience, but I think that goes for any industry in any sector and I think some women have found that extremely difficult.

If you look at the City and at what major law, accountancy and banking firms are doing; they’re all addressing the issue of a long working hours culture.

How do you factor in part-time, sabbatical and maternity leave, and not just for women, but for men too?

I think they’re further ahead in what they are doing than our industry but if the ‘magic circle’ law firms can address it, then we can.

To enable part-time or flexible working, a lot is about the practicalities.

Ensure everyone has a laptop and is connected to the network when they’re working from home. If you give people the IT support they need, you can absolutely do it.

Alex MacLaverty took nine months of maternity leave twice at Hotwire and has since returned four days a week, a pattern she has worked for more than three years.

"Hotwire has always been very keen on the whole idea of work/life balance. 

That openness to fitting around people’s lifestyles has always been there, which is a good starting point.

I always knew I wanted to come back to work.

Six months into my first maternity I was getting very bored and we started having conversations with my boss about what would be practical in terms of coming back.

I knew that returning to work five days a week didn’t feel right to me but equally I wanted to make sure I could do a good job.

I knew I would get a fair hearing. I was more concerned about my ability to do my job with less time.

I felt very keenly that I didn’t want to end up doing the fifth day on a Saturday. There was no point in doing it if it wasn’t actually going to work.

The way I approached it was to be very objective and rational about what limitations going part-time would place upon the job.

The request was received really positively.

They were really happy that I wanted to come back. Lots of people don’t. If everybody is organised, I think it can definitely work and I don’t think it should be restricted to maternity.

I think it’s almost wrong to think that flexible working patterns should be the exclusive right of women who want to have children.

I would prefer it if a male colleague said they wanted to do it for good reasons of having a nice life.

I think part of the problem is that it’s seen as a ‘women’ thing and I don’t think it should be. Life is about more than work and that comes through in the quality of the work we do for our clients.

The antithesis of a good PR team is one that works all the hours that God sends. I think it’s more difficult if someone is more junior in an organisation because they have less control over their own time and if they are at the beck and call of clients it is harder to manage.

I think in general our industry is too desperate to please.

When people are miserable at agencies, it’s because they are over-servicing.

Everyone is so petrified about losing clients that they jump at the slightest thing.

A good agency/client relationship should be a partnership, which doesn’t mean answering emails at 10pm on a regular basis.

If you can remove that element, you can accommodate all sorts of different ways of working, which to be frank is the future.

The only thing stopping us from doing that as an industry is the agencies.

If we all said this is how we’re going to work from now on, the clients would just have to accept it.

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