Embrace flexible career options to succeed: one working mum’s advice for other women

Article by Amanda Purdie

I started my career in the 90s, striding around in a power suit, carrying a mobile phone as big as a brick. I thought I was equal to anything, until I had my first child, and got Mother Nature’s favourite reality check.

I was in London leading the Public Relations team for a multinational company. I loved my job, but it was basically incompatible with the 24/7 task of looking after a tiny, helpless baby (although there were some similarities with the company’s board).

Of course I wanted to stay at home with my son, but I was still full of ambition, and we had a mortgage to pay. When he was four months old I packed him off to a nursery, and went back to work full time. There followed the usual mayhem of raising a small child while juggling work. We’ve all got the war stories, with one of my favourite being a friend trying to finish an important call by sprinting down to the back of her garden with a screaming toddler in hot pursuit.

Even though my eldest son is now 19 years old and appears relatively unscathed, I wish I had been able to do it differently. Back then, if you were serious about your career there was no other option. “Working flexibly” meant you were a high functioning alcoholic; “working at home” meant you were in hospital; and there were dark looks if you left the office before 9.00pm.  

Thankfully things are different now, or are they? I recently worked for one of Australia’s biggest and best PR agencies. They had a lovely tradition on Mother’s Day of giving flowers to all the mothers in the company. I couldn’t help noticing that of the 100 plus staff, there were just a handful of us taking home bouquets.

Although this is more of an anecdote than a data point there’s no denying that it can be incredibly tough for women to stay in demanding, 24/7, service focused and deadline driven professions, like communications, once they start having families.   

A recent survey of the PR industry found that, although women represent two-thirds of the global PR industry, 78% of CEOs in the top 30 PR agencies worldwide are men. This is true across most professions – you may have heard the report that fewer women run top Australian companies than men named John, Peter or David.

I am convinced that part of the answer to the question of how to keep more women in my profession, and in others, is flexible and part time working. It’s about developing acceptance of the idea that careers don’t have to be linear, they can have some interesting and rewarding diversions.

This could be when children are small, or it could be at other times – such as in the case of wanting to study to refresh skills; or caring for elderly parents. Of course this applies to men as much as women.  

There has to be both a cultural shift to more positive attitudes from employers about offering part time positions, and practical steps to structure roles so they offer meaningful work. Technology has a big and positive role to play in underpinning new approaches.

From the simple benefit of enabling people to work from any location, to new platforms such as Gemini 3 which uses dating site algorithms to match people who want to job share. And, of course, the recent emergence of online professional jobs marketplaces, like the one I work for now, that can connect people easily to work.

My favourite piece of advice I give working mothers is to “put your own oxygen mask on first”.  When your children are small it can be very hard to have it all. This drives talented and experienced people on the cusp of reaching senior management out of the workforce. I am an advocate for the benefits that part time working, job sharing and more flexibility can deliver to us all.   

I’d love to be able to go back and give that advice to myself.

Amanda Purdie is part of the Commtract team and has over 20 years experience in corporate communications. Most recently, Amanda was the Head of Edelman’s Reputation Practice in Melbourne.