What image do you conjure up, when you think of someone who is self-employed? Is it an entrepreneur founding an exciting new business? A trailblazer launching some kind of techy startup? What about a woman sat at her desk, just days after giving birth, shifting uncomfortably on her stitches, with her newborn sitting next to her?
When I chose to leave my stable office job in journalism, back in 2015, to work for myself, this became my reality. Like the 287,000 mothers working freelance in the UK, I took my chances on the gig economy in lieu of flexible employment. In the past decade, the number of self-employed women has increased dramatically. Four in 10 freelancers in the UK are women, and 15% of all freelancers are mothers – a figure that’s gone up by 70% since 2008.
While some of those women are entrepreneurs launching companies, others are women, like me, who have left full-time employment in favour of the fluidity of working for other people on a casual basis. I quit my inflexible job as the deputy editor of a weekly magazine in Sydney shortly after the arrival of my first son, in 2015, in favour of returning to the UK and becoming a freelance journalist – something I could do around looking after young children.
People are often quick to tell me how lucky I am to be able to tick along in my chosen profession, while spending so much time with my children, and I really am – but this is a privilege I pay for, dearly. I don’t have access to any of the security or basic rights contracted employees receive, such as sick, holiday or maternity pay – which is how I came to be propped up at my desk earlier this year, while my newborn slept peacefully in his bassinet next to me.
Plus, there is no career progression. No appraisals, promotions or pay rises. “Picking my own hours” means starting work once the needs of everyone else in the house have been met, which is usually once the kids are tucked up in bed. As such, it's not unusual for me to be working until 3am only to be back up with the baby a few hours later. “Flexibility” means I can work just as hard as my partner, but I also get to clean the toilets, make dinner and keep the children alive.
Due to the unpredictability of my work, arranging childcare for the children (aged three years and 10 months, respectively) is a constant juggle. While my older son attends nursery every morning, thanks to the government’s “30 hours free childcare” scheme, arranging care for the baby is trickier. I’m faced with the option of paying for childcare that I may not always need, or willing him to go to sleep just so I can get some work done. In truth, much of the time I don’t feel as though I’m doing either job particularly well.
'Flexibility' means I can work just as hard as my partner, but I also get to clean the toilets, make dinner and keep the children alive
At the end of last month, a new ruling by the Australian Fair Work Commission means that if an employer turns down your request for flexible working, they will be required by law to justify why. Had a policy like this been in place when I was employed, I might have had the courage to ask for flexibility instead of feeling like my only real option was to resign. Instead of starting a much-needed dialogue about how I could perform my role without working upwards of 60 hours per week, I fell on my sword. With legislation on my side, things might have been different.
And with a rise in the number of mums working freelance, it's important to recognise that, although some people have opted for this lifestyle, others in need – or want – of flexibility are being driven out of inhospitable workplaces and finding themselves in the precarious position of living hand to mouth with few rights to their name.
We know 54,000 women get made redundant every year on maternity leave, while 77% of pregnant women and mothers have experienced discrimination in the workplace. It’s hardly surprising that the number of mothers working freelance has risen so much in the last decade, becoming the demographic with the highest increase. Whether they jump or are pushed matters very little, when the outcome is still the same.
Flexible working isn’t like a fancy coffee machine or a standing desk. It shouldn’t be seen as an attractive but ultimately optional extra; it should be a part of the fabric of every workforce. It would mean that parents could share the care of their children between them, helping tackle the pay disparities between the two head on. It would mean that single parents could achieve what must feel like the impossible feat of juggling employment with being the primary caregiver. But flexible working shouldn’t just be a right for parents – it should available to everyone who wants it.