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How to make the most of flexible working, portfolio careers and more

Experiences of flexible working and career changes in education, the performing arts and the City were shared at a professional networking event for Oxford alumni.

The advantages and possibilities of alternative working arrangements, including part-time work, job sharing and portfolio careers, were explored during the evening at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London.

Dr Mike Moss, Alumni Careers Programme Manager at the University of Oxford, began the discussion on 18 November by voicing his support for flexible working. He also emphasised that employees are legally allowed to request flexible working after 26 weeks in a job.

Panellist and alumna Dr Helen Wright (Lincoln, BA French and German) described how flexible working has been central to her career. As a head teacher of a girls’ school, she was encouraged by her board of governors to be a role model for her pupils and work flexibly when she became a mother at age 32. After a stint in Australia, Dr Wright returned to the UK to establish a portfolio career based on non-executive, consultancy and business roles. She encouraged members of the audience to trust their instincts. She said: “Flexibility is not a nice-to-have. It is a necessity. If we are burnt out, we are not going to lead the lives we can lead.”

The session continued with conductor and former organ scholar Alice Farnham (St Hugh’s, BA Music) speaking about her peripatetic career, which has included playing the organ in London and conducting in the Swedish city of Gothenburg. She is currently rehearsing at the Royal Opera House for The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, which starts next month. Farnham explained how her job involves very different types of work, from rehearsing with gregarious musicians to spending significant periods of time studying scores on her own. She mentioned the advantages of being a freelance musician, and some of the surreal experiences associated with the performing arts, including spending three hours with men dressed up as elephants during rehearsals. Her work also includes leading workshops for aspiring female conductors.

The final panellist and alumna Phanella Mayall Fine (Oriel, BA French and German) described how her career has evolved in unexpected ways. Although her childhood ambition was to be a lawyer, Mayall Fine realised that she did not want to continue with a legal career soon after her first position in a law firm. She then moved to banking, where she became an Equity Fund Manager. However, after having a baby, Mayall Fine felt that she was not able to return to her job on a flexible basis. Following a visit to a career coach, she then decided to qualify as a coach, trainer and professional development consultant. She is a director at Oak Consultants and author of a forthcoming careers guide for women, called Step Up, to be published next year by Ebury (Random House). forthcoming book Step Up – a careers guide for women the founder of Refocus Coaching.  Mayall Fine said: “It is really important not to compare yourself with other people. We are all different, with different preferences and circumstances. Make sure you know yourself.”

The discussion continued with questions and contributions from the audience about job sharing, how to negotiate flexible working arrangements with employers, and work-life balance. Many online resources for flexible workers and women were mentioned (including Capability Jane, Timewise Jobs and Women on Boards), as well as the support and advice provided by the Careers Service at the University of Oxford.