Photography Catharina Pavitschitz Fashion Direction and words Katy Lassen Model Anna Whitehouse
Anna Whitehouse seems to add to her long list of accomplishments almost daily. With Flex Appeal, her fight for flexible working to be taken seriously at the top level of business, she is breaking down barriers at a staggering pace. Whitehouse, aka Mother Pukka is a campaigner with a difference. She posts a picture of herself on Instagram with her boobs hanging out of a Zara dress one week and attends a meeting with cabinet advisers in Downing Street the next. Her professional achievements sit alongside posts about a chaotic family life that hundreds of thousands of women can relate to. It’s a modern way to get your message out there and it’s working.
Anna puts Slashies to shame with her current ventures: presenter on Heart FM / columns in Marie Claire and Grazia / writing a book alongside her husband / Flex Appeal / oh and she is mother of two small children. It was hard to know where to start with this feature, seeing as in the few weeks since we met for a photoshoot and then an interview, Anna has finished said book, made serious inroads in lobbying to make flexible working available by default across the NHS, given multiple talks for Flex Appeal, recorded a chart topping podcast with Mary Portas, and kept us all up to date on her incredibly popular Instagram account.
A quick show of hands with my mum friends and Anna tops the list of their favourite social-media-famous-parents. It was a relief then to find that Anna is as cool, normal and as funny as she comes across online. Within minutes of us arriving at the studio for the shoot we are deep in vibrant conversation about work, life, parenting, balance, clothes, belly fat, hairstyles, the gender pay gap, sexism in the work place….you get the picture.
Anna is first and foremost a writer and so it felt natural for her to start a blog documenting the everyday challenges she was facing as a working mother, on the hunt for that ever-elusive work/life balance. When she quit her job in 2016 after her request for flexible working was denied, she took to Instagram and told her 64 followers what she thought about the situation and decided that she was going to do what she could to change the status quo. Needless to say this chimed with many people; not just women and not just parents. Fast forward to 2019 and Mother Pukka has 200k+ followers on Instagram, and that impressively long list of achievements mentioned above.
“It’s not about working less, it’s about working differently, more creatively”.
A week after the shoot I meet Anna in Whitstable where she is housesitting for a friend and putting the finishing touches to her next book ‘Where’s My Happy Ending’, written in tandem with her husband Matt aka Pappa Pukka, focussing on that well known and elusive quest: eternal happiness, or at least, ‘happy enough ever after’. I arrive for the interview bleary eyed, literally. Sporting an eye infection and following an overly emotional discussion about my own work life balance, I launch into an apology about the state of my face but also how apposite this is considering the topic of Anna’s book, which in a nutshell is ‘is this it?’. The challenges of maintaining a happy and healthy relationship whilst bringing up small children and pursuing a career (or two) is more like climbing a mountain with your arms full of bricks and writhing animals (or toddlers) strapped to your back.
Anna explains how they came to write a book together “We got to the point where I felt like I was standing in front of a damn, just trying to stem the latest flow. It was coming at me from all angles. All the pressures that we all feel; family, work, romance, sex, so many things you need to do on a daily basis to keep that damn up, and it can feel as if one thing goes, the whole thing goes, and that is why Matt and I wanted to write this book together. To be quite frank we had got to the point where we were both thinking ‘are we actually going to carry on like this?’ and we wanted to ask questions in relation to work, sex, gender balance and working out why we are essentially Generation Fucked.”
This is what makes Anna so appealing, especially to women and to tired mothers. She is honest and matter of fact about the challenging complexity of life when you are trying to juggle career, family and relationships. Too many people are peddling faux happiness in those little squares on Instagram, but women are increasingly turning to those who are telling it how it really is. Scummy Mummies and Pregnant then Screwed are just some of the friends and compatriots in Anna’s cause.
Flexible working, having multiple revenue streams, working remotely…these are all buzzwords at a time when people are working more than ever, in a capitalist driven economy where we are all encouraged to earn as much as possible, even if that means having to use most of that income to pay other people to bring up your children and barely seeing your partner. But the idea of flexible working for all has yet to be adopted wholeheartedly in the workplace and it’s mainly women, still the primary caregivers, who are suffering.
“My dad was quite different for his generation and really changed my perspective on things. He gave up working for the big man and set up his own business so that he could be there for us at the school gates at 3pm. He still worked but he had control over his work and I think that’s what people are really striving for; it’s not necessarily about having a ping pong table and beer on tap in the office, its about having control in how and where you work. I think our kids will have an easier time of it because we are forging a path of how it can work, breaking down those expectations. It’s not about working less, it’s about working differently, more creatively”.
“We need a fundamental shift in how we all work”
Our government’s approach towards work isn’t helping. Neoliberalism by its nature requires as many people to work as possible, but with stagnating wages, and rapidly rising living and childcare costs, even with the severe cuts in welfare, in many cases it doesn’t pay for parents to work. What is needed is a progressive approach to work and childcare but, as Anna points out, most of the seemingly positive changes are mostly puff pieces to look as if things are being done;
“Amber Rudd (The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) recently launched a flexible working job site that was aimed at single mums. On the surface that sounds good, to get single working mothers back into the workforce, employers can go straight to this site to employ these women. But in fact what she has done is strap flexible working onto mothers’ shoulders. Even worse, single working mothers shoulders. We need a fundamental shift in how we all work, not sticking tape over the cracks.”
I exclaim that it seems crazy that in 2019 the best the government can do is to find the jobs that already offer flexible hours, most likely low skilled, low paid jobs, and market them at single mothers. Rather than encouraging all employers to adapt to modern life and offer flexible working to everyone so that employees are supported and no-one is discriminated against.
“There is a warped gender narrative here. To be honest it is patronising guff. We have the most expensive childcare in Europe. We are working in a system that is set up to fail for anybody who doesn’t fit the mould. If you are in that position you don’t see the discrimination, there is nothing stopping your career flourishing and you reaching the top. There is no understanding. Sometimes it is ignorance, sometimes it is heads in the sand and sometimes it is because these people just want an easier life. Because there are so few women at the top, there is a lack of empathy to see why the path is so difficult for anybody who doesn’t fit your set up.”
It would be an understatement to say that the country is in a particularly uncompromising place right now, and I suggest that if life is hard for privileged, white, middle class, media-types then we are also not addressing issues surrounding a host of other families and parents from a broader range of ethnic backgrounds that may face additional hurdles due to systemic racial prejudice.
“Absolutely and I have definitely come a cropper and had a blinkered approach to flexibility based on my own background, my own bias, my own glaringly white middle class privilege. I am obviously not able to shift what has gone before but I have had to really break down the blinkers to this issue. Look at zero hours contractors and shift workers. It’s all very well me talking in the context of the 9-5, but this is an archaic construct in this day and age. In the beginning I wasn’t looking beyond the office based, privileged set up. What social media has given us is transparency and politicians are struggling with this. People can get to you, you are being talked to, you cant hide so easily from those who want you to listen and those you need to listen to. What I have found difficult and have loved in equal measure along the way is that people are breaking down my blinkered approach, I am having to unlearn, while feeling deeply uncomfortable at times about how I have approached things in the past. I am now trying to see things through a different lens and I am trying to learn and understand and approach the issue that I have tried to open up, in an all encompassing, 360 degree way, that isn’t just going to benefit my daughters; which was essentially what I set out on this mission to do. I wanted to do this for my kids but I realise now we need to do this for OUR kids, however different we are.”
The real breakthrough for Anna’s cause as well as for her understanding of the depth of the problem came when a woman with a particularly bad experience got in touch to see if she could use Anna’s platform for support. Lourdes Walsh was a shift worker who resorted to bringing her son to work with her and hiding him in a back office reading books for most of the summer holidays. She had requested more flexibility from her employer for the holidays and was refused. It was the last thing she wanted to do but she felt she had no choice as she couldn’t afford the childcare and she couldn’t afford to lose her job. She was reported to her boss and reprimanded. No-one asked how it had got to this point, no-one offered any support to avoid the situation arising in the future. She was disciplined and told not to do it again.
“They didn’t ask how has this happened, how such a human situation, a mother who is trying to earn money to keep a roof over her child’s head, come to pass? The company wasn’t interested in how this situation had arisen, they were only interested in stepping back, issuing warnings and basically threatening that if she didn’t want her job, someone else would. So Flex Appeal’s success has come with being able to deconstruct my viewpoint publicly, which has been difficult and uncomfortable and ugly and has caused me a fair amount of anxiety on the sidelines, because a lot of people are unlearning privately and I am unlearning publicly. We went to the Equality and Human Rights Commission together and we sat at the table together but I stepped back and Lourdes told her story in front of 20 big CEOs, big names such as TFL, Shell, Network Rail; to the people at the top. And that is the power of what we have now; these connections. If you are open to listening, if you are open to feeling very uncomfortable, then we can work together to make change happen. But unfortunately thats not what people like Amber Rudd are doing.”
So, I ask, who IS doing it well and providing flexible working for their employees?
“Pursuit Marketing in Glasgow is a great example. A medium sized business, they have 150 employees and they implemented a 4 day working week. So you get the same pay, but work 4 days instead of 5. In two years productivity went up by 30%, they doubled turnover from 2.5 million to 5 million and ultimately people were healthier and happier, they took much fewer sick days. It’s empowering people”. It seems like a no brainer to me.
For Anna, being at the centre of her campaign is a double edged sword. There is no doubt that she is a very appealing campaigner and that people follow her and cheer her on because she is relatable, likeable and puts her neck on the line for her cause. At the same time she struggles sometimes to make sure she isn’t virtue signalling or making it all about herself. “People don’t listen to someone who isn’t there, so you kind of have to put yourself in the middle of it, but at the same time it’s not about me, it’s about everybody else.”
“There is a platform. There are people pooling their frustration and anger who are now able to be heard. And that’s what’s really freaking brands and politicians out; that the People are able to rise”
I ask Anna whether it is government legislation that is needed most or putting pressure on big companies to change from within. “So our next focus in regard to Whitehall is making flexible working available from day one in a job. Currently you can’t legally bring up the issue of flexible working until you have been in a job for 26 weeks. You can’t bring it up in the job interview. People are stagnating because if they have managed to get some flexibility in their job then they are very reluctant to jeopardise that and look for a new job or even to move upwards in the company they are in. And as it’s still mainly women who are looking to work more flexibly, when you are looking at the gender pay gap issue, this is really feeding into why women aren’t moving on to higher paid jobs as they are terrified they won’t get the flexibility they need. Women hold back because they feel that with the fragile ecosystem that is the family/work/life balance, a small change could bring the whole thing crumbling down. We have heard from women that they subconsciously de-feminise themselves in job interviews, take off their wedding rings, dress more androgynously, avoid talking about family. You want the job, you know you are good for the job, but you cannot bring your whole self to that job in any shape or form because the next person that comes along who has something dangling between his legs and doesn’t ask those questions is more likely to get the job than you are”.
Speaking of the gender pay gap, it wasn’t until legislation came into effect in 2018 that forced companies to reveal their gender pay gaps that Flex Appeal got the attention it deserved. “People ignored me for three years. Companies wouldn’t answer my emails, thought I was some random woman spouting off about flexible working, they thought this isn’t relevant. The minute they were forced to act I had floods of emails, from the same people who had ignored me! It turns out that effective flexible working is the number one way to close the gender pay gap. Not just for mothers but for everybody. There was suddenly nowhere for them to hide and that is a positive about our social media world; we now have transparency and accountability. ‘Woman on the Street able to challenge multi-national brand’, that’s what we are coming to. Five, six years ago, you couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t have had a voice, I wouldn’t have had a place to say these things. There was nowhere for me, for anybody else who wants to raise something from race issues, to politics, to tackling huge gender bias, there was nowhere for us. And now, for better or worse, there is a platform. There are people pooling their frustration and anger who are now able to be heard. And thats what’s really freaking brands and politicians out; that the People are able to rise”.
‘Where’s My Happy Ending’ is out in February 2020 and published by PanMacmillan