My start-up company, Sidekicks, employs eight people. All are female, two have young children, one spent nine years out of the workplace raising her family before joining the company, and one was heavily pregnant when I hired her.
The lady in question, Julia Aaltonen, holds an MA from Cass Business School and after six years in our industry, is indisputably one of London's best secretarial recruiters. Returning to London early this year from Washington, where she had been living, Julia assumed that she would need to wait until after the birth of her child to seek work, and wasn't happy about it. To me, as an employer, this seemed ridiculous - Julia is one of the best and brightest in our industry, and should have been in incredibly high demand.
"I was pregnant whilst looking for work which, on the surface, wasn't an ideal situation. But, then - I'm also very good at my job. I know my market, I know what my clients expect and I know what my candidates need. My role lends itself strongly to flexible working, and if a company has good technology and the right attitude, pregnancy shouldn't pose an issue."
It didn't pose an issue for us - hiring Julia was an amazing opportunity, and it has been a decision I have never regretted, not for a moment. She is an intrinsic part of our team and I have no doubt that motherhood will continue to hone her already formidable skills even further.
I'm telling you this because I believe that there is immense value in hiring people who don't fit the mould. This isn't because I want to make some sort of statement - 'Look at our hiring practices! Our company is morally superior!' - it's because I genuinely believe that employers are missing out on an enormous pool of seriously dedicated talent. In a market in which we're experiencing a real shortage of excellent candidates, this isn't something that we as employers can afford to gloss over.
Yes, here at Sidekicks, we're currently an all-female team. This isn't because we prefer it that way; it's simply that we believe there is a gender imbalance in our industry and it's more difficult for us to find men who have worked within an administrative role and who want to do our job.
This could be due to the fact that most of our candidates are women - according to the ONS*, 77% of people working within Administrative and Secretarial occupations are female. Given the high proportion of women in our industry, it's therefore even more critical that attitudes towards expectant and working mothers are open-minded, fair and honourable.
I worked for over a decade in administration before founding Sidekicks. As many females in their twenties will tell you, potential employers (particularly small businesses) are often nervous of hiring women who appear to be of child-bearing age because they worry about the cost to the business of supporting maternity leave.
I was advised by a recruiter to take my engagement ring off for an interview in case the sight of it 'set off alarm bells'. I was explicitly asked in interview by a potential employer whether or not I wanted to have children and when I was planning to have them. (This is illegal, by the way). Upon responding in the negative, I was then reminded that I was approaching thirty and so might change my mind 'within a year or two'.
I didn't get that job.
To tell you that irritated me is to put it mildly. I am a hardworking person who is dedicated to my career and good at my job. Why should I be penalized for the fact that I am of an age and gender where technically I am capable of reproducing? And even if I were to have a child - would that really mean my career would be over?
I can now tell you categorically that it wouldn't be; I've seen it first hand within Sidekicks, and not just in Julia's case.
Katie Booth is Director of Operations at Sidekicks - and she is one of the most capable, high-achieving women in our industry. Katie has two young children and works a flexible week in the office to allow her to juggle her time effectively.
By the time she arrives at Sidekicks HQ in Mayfair at 8.00am, Katie has already got her children out of bed, made sure they are washed, dressed and ready for school, clubs and music lessons plus a myriad of other things. She has started the day of two other humans whilst I am still on my first coffee. And she does this with no nanny or childminder support.
The flexibility we offer allows her this work-family balance and this translates to a dedication and determination to not waste even a second of each working day - a trait common to every parent I have worked with. This ultra-awareness of time and the ability to manage it so effectively is an incredibly powerful asset to any employer - it translates into huge efficiencies within a business.
The reality is that women still worry about having a family for fear of losing their career, and employers worry about allocating resources to an individual whose career plans are in flux and subject to change. However, the rewards for taking a chance on these women are absolutely monumental.
If a business is willing to 'put its money where its mouth is' and hire the person who is genuinely best for the job - no matter their age, gender or circumstances - they will benefit from immeasurable levels of dedication and loyalty, and a genuine personal commitment from that individual to make it work.
Employers must lead by example. Yes, it takes a little juggling, and for a small business it can be scary, but the long-term benefits in terms of employee retention, team spirit, dedication and personal accountability are absolutely enormous.
The solution to addressing old-fashioned attitudes toward hiring expectant mothers isn't to get cross about it; it's to educate employers about the benefits these women will bring to their businesses.
Fundamentally, what it boils down to is that it's the sensible - and decent - thing to do. Our daughters deserve to inherit a working world where starting a family whilst having a fulfilling career isn't seen as a selfish attempt to 'have it all' - it's seen as normal, and where years of dedication to an employer can rightly be expected to translate to a supportive and progressive attitude towards maternity policy and flexible working.
Women and employers really can have the best of both worlds - we just need to work together.
*Source: Labour Force Survey, Office for National Statistics