We wanted to mark International Women's Day 'Mums Keeping It Real' style. So who better to interview than Sophie Walker, 44, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WE). The former Reuter's journalist is one busy lady; she is also the WE candidate for London Mayor at the forthcoming elections in May. She still squeezed in time to chat to Digital Mums!
Tell us about an average day – you have two daughters and two step children and you’re on the campaign trail. How do you manage to square both things?
"Well for starters, there’s no such thing as an average day on the campaign trail! I can be doing a range of things from visiting London City officials – last week I met the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to discuss the rising rate of sexual violence in London - to talking with technology entrepreneurs about the need to encourage more women into the industry, visiting flexible working childcare facilities to making speeches at events and participating in hustings. Every single day is different.
So I sit down with my children and my husband every Sunday night and we talk about the week ahead and plan it together. My husband, who also has a very consuming job, and I take it in turns to do the school run in the morning and try to avoid both being out late on the same evening. We talk to the children so they know who will be around and when. Some weeks it works well and other weeks it has been a bit crunchy. I speak on the phone to my daughters if I’m not going to be home before bedtime, and on the evenings I am home I cook their dinner. I get lots of requests for their most-loved meals these days because they know that they have leverage, the little monkeys. So no more beans on toast but lots of Favourite Lasagne! I always ask them about their day, how school has gone and what’s the latest with friends. Sometimes I dispense with strict bedtimes to have an extra half an hour of a silly film or a splashy bath time. And sometimes I do none of that and come home grouchy and tired and we all grumble at each other. Nobody’s perfect. We just all get up again the next day and try again.
I take my daughters with me to work sometimes. The Women’s Equality Party is a child-friendly zone! They’ve come to committee meetings and events. Last Saturday my youngest came out canvassing with me on her scooter. She was VERY good at it."
What’s your own childcare situation – how do you make it work ?
"We have a lovely childminder who comes in every day to collect my youngest daughter from school and keep my elder daughter company when she gets back too. She’s flexible and can stay late if we need her to.
We’re really lucky because my youngest daughter’s school has wraparound daycare, so we can drop her off at breakfast club if we need to get going early. And after years of fighting for the additional educational support that my elder daughter needs – because she has autism – we also have local transport support so she is collected and brought home from school every day.
This sort of support is really vital for parents and carers and it’s right at the top of my agenda, both as the Mayoral candidate for London and as the leader of the Women’s Equality Party.
It’s a priority to create affordable childcare that’s available from nine months – the end of parental leave – so that families aren’t left struggling until their children are 3 or 4 years old; to make sure that breakfast clubs and after-school clubs are widely available; and that carers have the access to the wider services and support that they need. Childcare in London is a third more expensive than anywhere else in the UK. Just 21 percent of London’s local authorities say they have enough childcare for disabled children. Just 15 percent say they have enough for parents who work shifts and weekends. I want to change that."
So many of our Digital Mums have joined our courses because there simply has not been other options for finding good work that can fit in around family life. Is this something you have witnessed too?
"I was lucky because in my previous journalism job I had an innovative boss who understood that flexible working was not only possible but beneficial to the business. I travelled the world as a reporter but took a desk job when my children were older and then needed to be able to work from home often when my older daughter needed support. I was able to work out a way of doing that, and my boss was able to keep a productive – and dare I say, talented! – member of the team.
Finding good part-time work and making work in London flexible is vital for women in London and also for businesses in London to grow and attract talent. I’ve been talking to CEOs and senior partners in firms in the city about how we could make flexible working the default, about how we can create more quality part-time work, and about how we can change workplace cultures so that parenting is shared more equally – so that men feel comfortable asking to take parental leave and women can be supported and mentored into more senior positions."
One of your objectives is around equal parenting and caregiving – is there an argument that there will always remain a glass ceiling at home when it comes to mums and domestic chores? How can we change that entrenched cultural position?
"Oh, the rows about chores! We have all been there. My husband and I share the chores equally, but we still bicker over them sometimes because we’re both balancing a lot and we get tired. I respect him enormously and I know he respects me, and I think that’s vital to a successful relationship, and a successful relationship depends on sharing out the domestic chores. It’s important that children see parents working as partners inside the house. It’s important that boys don’t expect someone to pick their clothes up off the floor on the basis that they are female. And it’s important that girls don’t model their responsibilities on a mother who does everything on her own. I ask all of my children to help equally - boys and girls all do the washing-up and taking out the bins – and I work hard to foster mutual respect among all of us."
How do you think women could be better represented in the tech sector?
"We have to keep talking about the importance of diversity in business. It’s not hard – there’s a new report pretty much every week showing that businesses that employ a diverse workforce and have women in senior leadership positions perform much better than those that don’t. We have to encourage more women into jobs in technology by mentoring and supporting them and providing access to venture capital and funding. We have to work with schools and banks and financiers and employers to counter gender bias and open up opportunities for all. And we have to set quotas because the pace of change is glacial. London’s leading business should have 50:50 boards and executive committees."
Part of our course teaches mums how to do the hustle to get in front of clients and win work and be confident. And here you are as head of the Women’s Equality Party without a background in politics or the usual 'connections', we love that, tell us more!
"Ha, thank you! I don’t have a secret to it. I just got to the point where I couldn’t not stand up and speak about this stuff, because it’s so very important to me and I’m so determined to make a change. I get nervous, of course. And I worry constantly about getting things right – it’s a huge responsibility to lead this party and I am truly determined to do the best job I can to represent the needs of all of our members. But it’s also important not to overthink it. When things get very intense I try to just take it back to the personal and remember that I’m just another person talking about my life with other people doing the same. And then finding common ground doesn’t seem so hard.
As far as hustling goes, I’d just add this. People keep telling us that women can’t network. That’s simply not true. We just don’t network in the pub like men do. We’ve all got networks that we can build on."
Finally we recently did a #RealMumMoments social media campaign asking women to share the reality of being a parent. Have you got one to share?
"I was doing a radio interview a few weeks ago and I was on my own in the house with my littlest daughter - it was the weekend and everyone else was out doing clubs and shopping and the rest. I had set her up with some colouring and explained I’d need to be on the phone for about ten minutes without interruptions. About a minute into the interview I heard her go into the bathroom. About two minutes after that I heard her start to call “ Mu-uuuuum…. Can you help me?” There was nothing I could do but continue with the interview and pray no-one could hear the increasingly urgent entreaties that were being directed at me from behind the bathroom door in my house. As soon as I finished the interview I rushed off to sort things out for her. And then I played back the interview with my fingers crossed .. to my immense relief none of it had been audible to listeners!"