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#EmbraceEquity: The story of flexible work and the bright and brilliant girl

Once upon a time there was a girl who worked really hard at school and got really high grades in her exams, she was bright and brilliant, the kind of girl you would love to hate and she graduated with flying colours and went on to her preferred course in college.

On her first welcome day of college, she stood, shoulder to shoulder with all the other students, male and female, her head and heart full of dreams and aspirations – she was dreaming of world domination in her chosen field and was determined to work hard and excel.

She did work hard and came out top of her class and embarked on an enjoyable career, travelling and working long hours and climbing the corporate ladder steadily. Then one day the girl met a boy and they fell in love – they got married and in their early thirties, had a baby and then in quick succession, they had another and another. 35, with 3 babies under 4, the ambitious girl went back to work – she subcontracted her role as Mother to strangers and she was determined to continue her rising career trajectory. In her pre baby world of work, she frequently did 60 hour weeks as everybody else also did as this was the culture in her workplace.

Now, she had a minimum 60 hour week to contend with but she also arrived home (after not seeing her babies all day ) to commence ‘the second shift’. At home, as matriarchal head of the family unit, she was expected to also be the household manager. Birthday parties, play dates, sports trips, washing, cooking, cleaning, Christmas – all these things did not happen if the household manager was not on duty. And even though the girl worked harder and earned more than her husband, the playschool would always call her if one of her babies was not well, no matter how many times she asked them nicely to ring her husband.

The girl missed her babies when she was at work – she was still breast feeding her smallest baby and so also had to pump milk at work in the ladies’ toilets. She had not one minute of the week to herself and began to wonder what was it all about – she had read Sheryl Sandbergs ‘Lean In’ book and started to beat herself up because she felt that her situation was unsustainable and something was going to give. Her mental health suffered as she was reaching burnout.

She spoke to her husband and they sat down and did the sums – he was happy to continue working at the same pre baby ‘always on’ pace that his company expected of him and she decided to ask for a more flexible arrangement at work – perhaps she could get reduced hours or even just work the 38 hours she was paid for. Filled with hope, she approached the company where she had dedicated her working life for 12 years and asked for flexibility so that she could have some work-life balance.

The meeting did not go well – they felt that if they gave this arrangement to the girl, well, then, everyone would want it and they couldn’t have that; productivity would decrease and they would lose their competitive advantage. The girl argued that she could not continue doing on average 60 hours a week, taking calls in the evening and being always on call. The company, even though they proudly displayed their ‘Best Place To Work’ badge and had very strong in their positive EDI message online, taking part in International Women’s Day events etc, refused to grant her flexibility request. (Business Plus, 2022)

The girl was aghast – this was a company who she had loyally dedicated her working life to so far, working long hours and nights when deadlines were tight. Now they weren’t even allowing her to come into work a little late in the morning after creche drop off.
The girl felt that she had no choice, for the sake of her physical and mental health, but to hand in her notice and the company, let the talented, bright and brilliant girl go.

Her husband continued climbing the corporate ladder unimpeded while the girl stayed at home with their 3 babies – she was happy and relished in her role as Mum but there was always a niggle at the back of her mind that this was inequitable.

The years passed and the babies got older and the girl had more time to herself – she started to toy with the idea of going back to the workplace but her confidence was at an all time low – who would want to employ her after she had taken 6 years off to stay at home? She worried that everything would have moved on and that she would be totally out of her depth back at work. She started researching companies that were authentic in their offering of flexible work and were open to returners.

She found a company online that seemed to be genuinely working flexibly – the role models on their website were diverse and their messaging was very inclusive, mentioning families and work- life balance. Their job specs were not too long and full of jargon. In her interview she was open and honest about her family and did not feel the need to be a ‘secret parent’(Oster, 2019) as she had in her previous role. This forward thinking company recognised the potential in the bright and brilliant girl and moulded a role around her family needs so that she could actually have the best of both worlds.

She commenced work with them and was able to balance her work and home life – as her babies got older, she had more time to commit to her career and played an important and vital role in her new company’s business. She felt loyal beyond measure to this company and helped spearhead the returner programme and the family friendly policies at work. She wrote blog posts and helped with the EDI positive messaging online. In a very tight labour market, her company, with the girl’s help were attracting diverse quality talent as people recognised it as a fair and equitable place to work with a culture of belonging.

The girl attended a 20 year college reunion with all those kids she had stood shoulder to shoulder with on their first day of college. She noticed that 21.6% of the married women were working fulltime as opposed to 56.5% of the men. The men who were mediocre in college and had scraped by were earning more than the women who had outperformed them on every level. In fact the men were earning nearly 12% more than the women on average. (Work – CSO – Central Statistics Office, 2019)

She thought back to that first day of college when her dreams were exactly the same as her male colleagues, where she had topped the class year after year and the bright and brilliant girl did her calculations and reckoned that, at the rate we were progressing, that it would be at least another 100 years before we really had equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. (Froehlicher, Hall and Lotte, 2020).

And the bright and brilliant girl despaired…


Karen O’Reilly is the founder of Flexible Recruitment and Training companies EmployMum and EmployFlex and is passionate about equity in the workplace.

She is currently studying a masters in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.