The mother of all career issues?
An opinion piece written especially for CJS
Hannah began work as a ranger in 2006, specialising in environmental education from 2011 onwards. She has two children.
For a long time, most of my career in fact, I didn’t really see that there was that much of a gender imbalance in conservation employment. When I was a ranger, I knew loads of female rangers and ecologists! When I began work in environmental education for a large wildlife trust, the whole education team was female! As I got older, I realised that these people were nearly all the same – young, and child free. As I progressed into my thirties, my contemporaries started disappearing. These women had a baby and either didn’t come back after maternity leave at all, or struggled on for a year or so after their return before leaving. I can think of a handful of examples of rangers and environmental education specialists who have stayed with the same organisation for years as their children grew, but I now wouldn’t say they were the norm. In the upper echelons of conservation, there are too few female faces, and seemingly even fewer interested in championing them.
I am not going to claim that my experiences speak for every woman employed in this sector, but I could direct you towards many friends and acquaintances from the places I worked who are all now mothers, and are no longer working in the career they once loved. Until this month, it also looked like I had said goodbye to it for good. How did it happen that a career I’d spent months volunteering full time to get into, and worked hard at for years, seemed to be closed to me?
In 2014 I had my first child. Whilst on maternity leave I started to negotiate a return, but part-time. Part-time working is something many parents desire, but for me it was particularly important. I suffer from arthritis and over the course of 2013 and 2014 it had become abundantly clear that the long hours I was doing were damaging my physical health. Combined with the exhaustion of early motherhood, I decided I could no longer work full time. The negotiations were a little tricky, but I was keen to please and whilst I couldn’t accept working different days each season (when exactly spring, summer, autumn and winter were defined to start and end couldn’t be answered by my bosses) an agreement was reached to make my role a job share. I offered to attend team meetings as Keeping-In-Touch days, but this was refused.
On my first day back in January, a new manager I had never met took me aside to tell me that the agreement I had in writing wasn’t her understanding of the situation and no job share would be forthcoming. I would be expected to do all the work I had previously done 5 days a week in 2.5, and find volunteer cover for activities on days I wasn’t there. Later, there was a climb down and every month I was told a job share would be recruited “soon, but it’s not a priority”. By July, I had yet to take a day’s holiday and was owed over two weeks’ time off in lieu. My performance at work was suffering and I was being constantly criticised – after 10 years of excellent reports. Anxious and upset I decided to quit.
At this incredibly difficult time, I had the extreme good fortune to land a maternity cover job at a botanic garden. I was able to quit my job with somewhere to go, with a significant pay rise, much better holiday and fantastic staff benefits to boot. My line manager in my new role was the polar opposite of the managers I had just left behind. She effectively rehabilitated me for work – offering training, encouraging me, supporting my ideas and with limitless understanding that sometimes as a working parent things are not perfect. I gave the job my all.
When my contract came to an end I was in another sticky situation, the one that I believe is the root cause of so many women leaving once they have children. I was job hunting but only in a specific radius of my home address. I had a mortgage. A husband who loved his job (and out-earned me significantly). I now had two children in nursery care (one accessing funded hours, the other’s place costing £780 a month for three days). Nurseries rarely offer flexible days, you take what you can get, and this situation is worse with so many closing down during the pandemic. I could no longer easily move 400 miles for a job. I would not work for a salary that wouldn’t even cover the nursery fees. I could no longer suddenly stay late at work because we were short staffed or a visitor’s car was still in the car park and someone had to wait to lock the gates. I still wanted to work part time. There was nothing suitable so I got a job running outreach programmes in a large university. I’ve enjoyed it, the work has been stimulating and flexible and it has no doubt done me good to see I’m employable outside of conservation and that I can have an identity outside of my job.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking that I want the moon on a stick. I don’t believe so. Even if I wished to work full time, most of the issues I listed would be the same. You could say fathers have the same problems, but the statistics1 show women are affected disproportionately. Society is stacked for mothers to be the primary childcare. Alternatives are possible – if we wean ourselves off the idea that working many hours above what we are paid for is normal, or a badge of honour. Organisations must be realistic about what they can actually achieve and, perhaps, value the experience of staff.
Conservation rests on the laurels that it is a “desirable” sector to work in. If I leave due to poor working conditions, inflexibility and bad pay (taking my experience with me), there is a 22 year old willing to put up with it all – until she turns 35 and has a baby and a mortgage.
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