Camilla Rigby and Rachel Mostyn met through their professional network in Bristol and bonded over their shared passion for flexible, family-friendly working. When they saw how little career support there was for Bristol mothers with multiple barriers to work or who were on benefits, they decided to take action. They found a real lack of bespoke, specialist support and after a year of researching and focus groups, The Women’s Work Lab was born. They tell Frank’s Features Editor Victoria Earle why its work is so necessary.
What prompted you to launch The Women’s Work Lab together?
Camilla Rigby: Back in 2015 I was rapidly heading towards burnout as I juggled a two-year-old and four-year-old, alongside a pretty much full-time job. At the time I felt angry and upset that I hadn’t been able to “do it all”, despite the privilege of having flexibility in my role, which made me feel like a failure. I became involved in some women’s business groups in Bristol and slowly realised that I wasn’t alone. But – and this is the big but – I recognised that more and more was being put in place for women that looked and sounded like me – white, married, middle-class professionals with lots of work experience.
When Rachel and I met we instantly bonded about not only how tough it can be to work/parent/run the home, but also recognising our own privilege. Seeing the world of work was starting to change, led by campaigners like Mother Pukka and Joeli Brearley from Pregnant then Screwed, we started to research what support was available to mums who maybe didn’t have any work experience, or who were on benefits. The short answer is very little, which was the start of The Women’s Work Lab.
What makes The Women’s Work Lab unique?
Camilla Rigby: We are unique in our tailoring of support – we spend a huge amount of time matching people to work placements that really reflect their previous experience and ambitions, rather than just ticking a box. Our whole programme is structured to be successful but also personalised to every mum and her specific needs.
We only work with mums who are in receipt of benefits. And this is something that we feel really strongly about as there is very little dedicated support for these women, despite their barriers often being very different to other unemployed adults.
What challenges do your participants typically face? I think 60% of your participants have experienced domestic abuse?
Camilla Rigby: Our mums have often faced a multitude of barriers to work. The majority of them are single parents, which clearly makes childcare much harder. Yes, we usually have between 60% to 70% on any cohort that will identify as being a victim or survivor of domestic abuse which can significantly knock down someone’s confidence and self-esteem. The partner may also have prevented the mum from working.
Other mums may have children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) which could affect a child attending school and also caring responsibilities. And we also support mums for whom English is a second language. Some may experience just one of these additional barriers, others could experience all of them.
What are the other main things holding back the women you work with?
Rachel Mostyn: Confidence, employability skills and childcare issues are the main problems for the mums that we work with. For some, they may have been out of the workplace for over ten years and feel that their skills are no longer relevant or perhaps they don’t have anyone to provide a reference. When we have been at home caring for children for a long time it can often be difficult to know where to begin and we can support women with that.
Our training does a deep dive into our strengths and vision and offers a supportive environment that really gives women the space to think about what they want to do next. We are not about getting women any old job but more supporting them on their career pathway and realise their own potential. There is no one size fits everyone!
How does the programme work?
Camilla Rigby: Our mums join us for a nine-month-long programme that takes place during school terms and school hours. The first five weeks are classroom-based training twice a week, where we work on building their confidence and helping them to recognise their strengths and values. The mums then take part in a four-week volunteer work placement at a local organisation that’s committed to supporting people back into work. Post-placement, the mums come back for two more weeks of training, before graduating with their bespoke career plans.
They then move to have support from our Talent Manager who matches them with a female mentor for six months of support. The Talent Manager also works with the mums on the next steps – be it applying for further training, CV help and interview preparation.
How do you help women to build on their transferable skills – or even see that they have transferable skills?
Rachel Mostyn: We spend SO much time in training looking at transferable skills! One of our mums last year went from being a hairdresser to an HR Administrator and she couldn’t be happier. She is still working with people but in a very different way. Our Director of Learning, Sally Ashby, is awesome at really bringing out the best in every one of our mums and helping them to see that transferable skills can really mean that there is so much opportunity out there. Another of our mums has changed from hospitality to support work and has landed an awesome family-friendly role.
How do you think the Covid pandemic has generally impacted unemployed mothers seeking work? And how has it impacted the Women’s Work Lab?
Camilla Rigby: Well, we’ve only really existed during Covid times. We know that demand for our services certainly hasn’t diminished and whilst the jobs market is buoyant, there’s still a lack of flexibility in roles which definitely impacts our mums. Nearly every mum we have worked with would like part-time work that they can flex around their caring responsibilities. Childcare remains a huge financial burden even when kids are in school as school holidays really can break the bank. So we’d like to see more employers offering to support parents with childcare costs, especially now with the cost of living sky-rocketing.
Do you think companies and recruiters are starting to see the value of offering flexible and part-time roles and giving mothers more of a chance? What needs to change?
Rachel Mostyn: I try to always look at the positives and the good news is that we are approached by awesome businesses every week that want to offer (or learn about!) how they can offer more part-time or flexible roles. Of course, we need more opportunities, but it does feel like this is changing. The pandemic has accelerated that transition as more of us have been working from home. We are proud to work with forward-thinking employees who see the benefit of recruiting on potential.
We are working with awesome women every day who want to work but just need a little more flexibility and support to realise that ambition.
How are you funded?
Camilla Rigby: A mixture of ways – some government funding, some from socially-minded local employers and some from charitable grants.
How many women have done your training and how many are now in work?
Camilla Rigby: To date, we have supported 75 women, with just over half now working. We tend not to just measure success on securing employment as we know that success will be further volunteering or enrolling on a specific college course, for example. We do know that 100% of our mums leave us with increased confidence and optimism about their future, which is our favourite measure!
What is your future vision for The Women’s Work Lab?
Rachel Mostyn: We are running six programmes this year – two in Bristol, two in North Somerset, one in South Gloucestershire and one in Bath. By the end of 2022, we will have supported nearly 200 mums and we are keen to build on that success. We are also scoping out new areas. We know there is a huge demand for what we do and we are keen to support as many mums as possible back into work. Watch this space!