Like many social entrepreneurs, my co-founder Nikki and I have a very personal connection to the cause we are trying to solve — maternal unemployment. But not in the way most people think.
People often assume because we started Digital Mums we’re both mums and are often pretty shocked to find out that we aren’t. Frankly, I have no idea how anyone juggling a family would have the time or energy to start a business but I guess superwomen like Liz Earle seem to manage it. I suspect genetic engineering or performance enhancing drugs in these instances and I have access to neither.
No we don’t have children, but we experienced maternal unemployment in the home as both our own mums struggled.
My mum was out of work for the majority of my life, struggling to find flexible, part-time roles that she could fit around bringing up myself and my sister. Growing up in a Welsh mining valley in the 80s meant there weren’t a lot of jobs about. The work she did find when I was young was poorly paid and uninspiring — cleaning jobs mainly. While this did affect us financially this wasn’t the biggest problem as we always had a roof over our heads and food on the table.
It was after my dad died that my mum really struggled as she had no focus outside of the family home, nothing to throw herself into. Nikki’s mum brought up her and her brother and sister alone, as Nikki’s dad died when she was just four. She has a similar story.
How it began
Nikki and I met in Thailand on a yoga retreat about eight years ago. We got on immediately and became good friends. We were actually friends for years before we ever thought about going into business together.
We both worked in digital marketing and over time we started toying with the idea of setting up a business together. We both wanted to create a flexible working environment for ourselves because we were finding our office-based, 9am-5pm work day a bit stifling and uninspiring. We were also really passionate about solving a huge problem in the world.
(I have to admit, another big motivator was wanting to have our own dogs that we could bring into our office, which I've realised with my lovely English Bull Terrier Cooper!).
Our desire for freedom and flexibility led us to take the plunge as entrepreneurs in early 2013. We set up our first business, Hackney Social, after recognising there was a need in our community for small businesses that needed help with digital marketing.
But there was one issue. Businesses didn't just want digital marketing help. They wanted us to do it for them on a regular, long-term basis. This was especially true with social media, which time and time again we were asked to manage for them.
The businesses changed but the story stayed the same; they didn't have the time to do it themselves. They couldn't find anybody with experience and a cool head that they could trust to take charge of them. And they couldn't find any high-quality options that weren't massively out of their price range.
We became social media managers for a handful of them, but we were still holding down full-time jobs. The workload was too much for us and we couldn't keep up with the demand. That's when the idea of training people as social media managers came into our heads.
Around that time we came across a report published by The Fawcett Society on maternal unemployment. Obviously it had been a problem when we were younger, but surely it had gotten better since?
The report proved categorically that it hadn't. And in some ways it had gotten worse.
The unfortunate truth about inequality in the workplace
The recession hit women harder than men, causing female unemployment to rise to a 25-year-high as of a few years ago. The Fawcett Society's report found that almost three times as many women as men became long-term unemployed between 2009-2012, with women with children more heavily affected. At the time the OECD placed the UK 20th out of 37 countries in a league table of maternal employment rates for mothers with children under 15.
Inflexible, office-based work can be rigid and uncreative for anyone. But for women with children it goes one step further and actually systematically pushes them out of the labour market.
In the UK as a woman having children, you're often left with an ultimatum:
- leave work because exorbitant commuting and childcare costs make it unfeasible
- struggle on in a full-time role.
As one of our graduates Brett, a former Senior Marketing Manager at a large multi-national investment bank who continued working full-time after having her daughter, told us:
"I was constantly doing less than my best, both as a mum and as an employee."
It's true that women do take up the majority of part-time roles. However, most of these tend to be low-level, badly-paid, task-based jobs such as caring, secretarial or admin work. A shocking 54% of women who are working part-time have been found to be employed below their qualifications and potential.
Flexible, part-time options that are also rewarding and decently paid were (and still are) just a pipe dream for most mothers.
This wasn't something affecting a small sub-section of the population - this was a universal challenge nearly every woman in the UK faces when having children.
We realised that in the midst of this injustice there was an opportunity for change.
There are all these amazing and talented women out there who have either taken career breaks to bring up their children or are suffering inflexible, full-time work. Many of them want to get back into work, or to continue working, but in a much more flexible capacity.
On the other side, there are just as many businesses that don't have the time or skills in-house to maximise their use of social media.
The answer was there for us and it seemed to make sense. Freelance social media management is a great job for a woman with kids. Not only is it flexible and can be done part-time, it’s rewarding and has great career prospects (it's the top skill-set businesses are hiring for this year).
The more we delved into it, the more we realised that mothers were highly suited to this role. They're traditionally early adopters of technology and social media. They're far more digitally savvy than the average person, being twice as likely to own a smartphone with 80% spending time on social networking sites (compared to the 51% average). They make 80% of all purchasing decisions so are a key target demographic for businesses. And many of the skills associated with building a family — empathy, sound judgement, the ability to multi-task and good communication skills - are essential for a social media manager.
We had two problems and a potential solution for both. We incorporated the business and haven't looked back since (with Hackney Social falling to the wayside as our own unloved child).
The present day
Digital Mums has been running for a little under two years now and it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience.
We've grown to a team of nine, six of which are mothers working flexibly. As of today we've put over 150 students through our Live Learning Programmes and we've had some incredible success stories. We're raising a round of investment to grow our team so we can support even more women into digital careers and more organisations needing help with growing their online presence. We have ambitious plans for the future and plan to continue address inequality in the UK (and beyond) by championing flexible work opportuities and helping to create new, exciting careers for women with children.
Interested in becoming a Digital Mum? Or in potentially working with one? Find out more about us here.