How to babyproof your career

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  • Scared of being sidelined when you go off to have a baby? Rachel Carlyle asks mums who’ve made it how they manage motherhood and their dream career...


    Sheryl Sandburg should know what she’s talking about – she’s chief operating officer at Facebook and a mother of two. She believes too many women in their twenties subconsciously take a back seat at work once they start thinking about getting pregnant, wasting their most productive years: ‘Literally from the moment a woman thinks she might have a baby, she does not look for promotion… she starts leaning back.’ Then the job becomes boring, and it might be years before a baby arrives. Much better, she advises, to ‘keep your foot on the gas’ then make your decisions once you’ve had a child – that way you’ve got more options.

    ‘Don’t tailor your whole career around the idea of having children’, agrees Mandy Garner at, set up to provide flexible high paid jobs for mothers. ‘Employers are increasingly waking up to the idea of flexible working anyway, so things may change by the time you have a family.’ Don’t automatically assume you will want to go part-time after a baby, either. Though it’s still the most popular choice (37.5 per cent of mothers choose it), numbers of full-timers are creeping up, from 23 per cent in 1996 to 29 per cent now. ‘Our surveys show that it’s flexible working in full-time jobs that women want, not part-time work necessarily, which can put you on the “mummy track” – you take a pay cut for a four-day week then cram five days into four, and still find yourself the butt of office jokes about part-timers,’ says Garner. She warns that if women leave their job or take on a lower-status part-time role, they will never probably get back to the level they were at before: a survey of 300 women in March revealed that 71 per cent of working mothers had taken a step backwards or stayed at the same level.


    You might think the kind of person who planned their life two decades ahead was, frankly, a bit mad – but it’s not as daft as you think. ‘People gasp at the idea of 20-year plan, but you do yourself a lot of favours if you have a vision,’ says maternity and career coach Jennifer Liston-Smith, of ‘It needs to be quite fluid, but it’s an expression of your intentions. Ask yourself: where do I see myself at 40 or 50? Do I have the scope to get there and, if I’m not in the right career, how do I switch? Experts advise auditing your career every couple of years to keep it on track, especially in your twenties when you have the most flexibility. Find a mentor (possibly your boss) and identify key people who will help you navigate your career.

    Be wary about talking to HR or to your boss about flexible working in the future though, as it may seem like you’re jumping the gun, and only do it if you have great rapport. ‘There’s no harm in having an informal talk along the lines of, “This is where I’d like to be in five years. If I’m a parent, how can we shape a role for me that would keep on course?” says Liston-Smith. If you do talk about flexible working, present it as a business idea rather than focusing your needs, and explain clearly how it would work for your job. ‘If you want to work from home one or two days, then stress how much more you’ll be able to do by cutting out the commuting time,’ she advises. The law says any parent or carer can ask for flexible working and, although your manager can turn down the request, he or she has to provide sound business reasons and you can appeal.


    A man who does 50 per cent of the washing-up may be a better prospect than that old cliché – a rich banker. To protect your career for the long term, you need a partner who is willing to share the domestic tasks and the childcare. It was revealed that almost half of working mothers still do 75 per cent of the domestic drudgery. ‘It is difficult to see how women will ever have the same opportunities as men in the labour market if equality at home is not achieved,’ points out Professor Gillian Robinson, a researcher at the University of Ulster.

    Liston-Smith believes it’s vital for women to have a discussion with their partners before children arrive. ‘It’s striking how many how powered women assume it’s their job to take time off when the child is ill and to manage the domestic sphere,’ she says.

    If you plan to reach the top, a house-husband may be the answer, says Helene Morrisey, the global fund manager campaigning for more women in Britain’s boardrooms: her husband Richard gave up his career to look after their nine children. ‘It’s very difficult for two parents who are working full-time to manage to bring up children who are happy and stable,’ she says.


    Spend your twenties and thirties grasping every opportunity to broaden your skills so you can be nimble with your choices later – and don’t fall into the classic trap of specializing too early in your career. Get some financial and operational experience under your belt as soon as you can, advises Ines Wichert, author of Where Have All the Senior Women Gone? (£26, Palgrave Macmillan). That will make you more promotable (and therefore less dispensable if you want flexibility later on) but also more marketable because you have a wider skills base. Employers typically list the three key skills as networking, an understanding of balance sheets and the finances behind your industry and the ability to do basic marketing. A grasp of all three is essential for senior management jobs, but is also increasingly desirable for junior and middle-management roles.

    ‘Men know they are going to be working for most of the rest of their lives, so they think about the endgame. But women don’t think so long-term, probably because they have to incorporate a break for a child,’ says Karen Gill, founder of Everywoman, a women’s business networking organization with 40,000 members. Download its career app. Navigator (, which provides advice, tips and research.

    Siobhan Freegard set up the online community Netmums after the birth of her second child. It now has 1.2 million members and a £2.5m turnover. She advises: ‘Don’t be afraid of lateral thinking.’ The birth of a baby can also mean the birth of a new career: almost half of new mothers can change career or go freelance and it’s estimated that there are now around 300,000 ‘mumpreneurs’ who have set up their own kitchen-table businesses, usually starting capital of less than £500.

    Consider your skills and build around them, says Laura Rigney, co-founder of Mumpreneur UK, which supports mothers in business. ‘A lot of mums cone up with a product idea based on something they would have liked to have bought for the baby or a service they wanted. Don’t worry is its not completely original, but you need to do it better than everyone else. We’ve got mums who blend their own tea and sell it worldwide, those who sell half-price theatre tickets, and lots of online baby boutiques and niche children’s products. All you need is a laptop and a phone – you can create a website for £2.99 a month.’ The first four years are tough, she warns, ‘but after that a work-life balance becomes more attainable.’ Do your research and get business advice from websites such as and

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