Work or family?

It is a question that many women working in racing, in many roles and at all levels, have to ask themselves and finding the right work-family life balance is not something many have felt able to discuss with employers

SOMETIMES the obvious is the last thing to be seen or understood and it has taken a long process and body of work undertaken by Women in Racing to bring greater clarity to the subject of having children and family life. It is a topic that many women and parents working within our sport have reported unable to even raise or discuss with their employers for fear of damage to their careers.

Dena Merson of Simply Racing has taken the Racing Home project for Women in Racing under her wing. The work has led to a serious body of work produced with research from Dr. Kate Clayton-Hathway of the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice, Oxford Brookes University, backed by the Kindred Group and the Racing Foundation. The research paper has has now developed into a bespoke website and with some significant ongoing plans and structure.

But it was a slight aside that led Merson to recognise this glaringly obvious and, sadly, for some a distressing industry omission.

“I’d been doing some work and sessions through Simply Racing with Women and a racing organisation,” recalls Merson.

“I brought up the subject of having children and there was a sort of silence. It very much became an elephant in the room in everything we discussed. I split the groups into two, put people into groups and talked about the impact.

“There were women from all levels and all areas of the organisation, including more of their senior women, as well as upcoming employees.

The emotion in the room and the discussion that was taking place, and there was reaction and some of it was tears, for some it was the first time that it could be discussed.

“It was very much emphasised how isolated people felt, how misunderstood they were, how they felt that it was not something that they could talk about within the industry because they would be perceived as less ‘in their role’ and they couldn’t share that challenge.

“Many thought that starting a family might impact job prospects, but we also talked about miscarriage, we talked about menopause, all those things that just cannot get discussed. And that was the first time I really thought we have a problem in the industry.”

A broad industry issue

Merson, who is a mentor for Women In Racing, immediately felt it to be an-across-industry problem not just an in-house company issue.“From the Women In Racing mentoring programme the feedback again was that this was something that couldn’t be discussed,” she says.

“With the retention problem we were having in the industry and the aim for a more sustainable staff base, it seemed that we were talking about the stable staff problem in light of Brexit, but we weren’t talking about the fact that we have a growing employment field of women.”

Merson took this knowledge to discussion to WiR and with the support from chairwoman Tallulah Lewis, it was felt that more should be done to support working parents. The next stage in November 2019 was a Racing Foundation-funded symposium with senior leaders within the racing industry to gauge a commitment from the top to improving the working lives for parents.

“And we invited Kate Clayton Hathaway, from University Oxford Brookes, who’d written the original report for women and racing, the idea being that, if we were right on this and did get backing, we should do another research report.

“The symposium was a very powerful event and included people from different parts of the industry and from outside of the sport too, including Suzanne Homewood, who came from Samsung to give an outside-the-industry perspective and from an employer’s point of view.

“We had some audience participation, and it became very clear that this was something even more accentuated and across industry, so we moved forward with our research.”

Dena Merson of Simply Racing

THE PLAN to hold a series of workshops throughout the country at racecourses and at racing centres was disrupted by COVID, but the events had got to the stage of social media promotion and the early response was immediate with almost unprecedented sign ups. In the end, just two in-person workshops were able to take place, with the rest swapping to the digital world via six webinars, which were again, oversubscribed. Merson says: “On those we have people from all over the sport at every level.

“When we held workshops and webinars we said, ‘Yes, we want to hear what the issues are, but we feel you are the ones best placed to come out with the solutions’.

“We were very keen to ensure that the solution shouldn’t be imposed. This is what we often do as an industry – the industry says ‘this is the answer’. In this instance we said, ‘You tell us the answers’.

“The workshops produced a whole raft of solutions and a really rich vein of ideas and from there we produced the report and suggestions and what the industry could implement.

“Those ideas became concrete actions that could be enacted, a number of pillars that were called ‘hurdles’.

“From very early on the Kindred Group has been involved and the company has very kindly funded us all the way through alongside the Alborada Trust, and the Racing Foundation.

“It was very important to get funding – Women in Racing is an organisation that charges £25 for membership, we just wouldn’t have had the resources otherwise.”

The united process achieved so much, and has revealed just how well the industry can work together with one goal in mind rather than clashing as is so often.

“Working so closely with Kindred shows how, when the gambling industry works in tandem with racing in a really positive way, what can be achieved

“It is a model of what can be done. The company is so on board, it is already rolling out some of the recommendations we’ve made.”

The Racing Home website created

Since the end of 2021 the Racing Home project has achieved its first stage of “doing”, the creation of the online portal.

“This is so important,” says Merson. “It’s not just a website, it is an organic, mumsnet, parents-net hub.

“Through our research the project has widened and includes all aspects of parenthood and family life – same sex parents, carers, people who want to adopt – anything that’s really family related. It became quite apparent in the research that nobody knew where to get information. Even if people were thinking of taking parental leave, it was ‘how do I do that?’ There are very few parts of our industry with an active HR department, if you think about it, trainers don’t have their own HR, jockeys don’t and a lot of the companies outsource it.

“There are also a lot of people who are self-employed, and there’s nothing to cater for the self-employed. So you’ll see on the portal that it is for employers, employees and self-employed.

“We wanted to provide a real clear path for people to know that, if they have a question, they have somewhere to go.”

Merson is also very keen to highlight good practice, of which there is much out there, but as the industry is so decentralised nobody knew where such good practice is taking place. With an industry made up of widely different sized companies and with so many differing functions, it is difficult to see whether a “one approach for all” could ever be applicable, but here was one thread that Merson found throughout.

“We really wanted this for the whole industry and that was a challenge, but there is one common denominator – it is the love of the horse and the love of the industry. That really shines through in every aspect of this sport.

“But I think there are other common denominators – a would-be mother is a would-be mother whether working at a racecourse and they are just getting a first chief executive position, or have just come into racing.

“And I think what was lovely about the webinars, we didn’t have a racecourse staff webinar or a stable staff webinar, everybody was in together.

“And I think it was a real wake up call for people out there to realise that this is a shared experience; we work in the same industry and understand each other’s challenges.”

With the website now in place the next stage is to revolve around education and a greater understanding regarding the need for childcare provisions.

Merson outlines: “We’re going to work with the racing colleges and Scottish Racing Academy getting the topic as part of the course, getting kids to talk about this in an open way because the young lads and girls are going to be fathers and mothers, and it might be earlier than they expect.

“It is a conversation that needs to be had in stable yards. Some of the feedback we were getting from the yards included some resentment from other staff if a parent has to, for example, do the school run.

“If people have to leave early it has got to be viewed flexibly. In an ironic way, covid played straight into our hands, because suddenly everyone was faced with this flexible working as was the rest of the world. So, suddenly, things that had not been acceptable have become so.”

And all this work has been for employer as much as it is for employees, for all sides of the axis to understand their rights and responsibilities.

“It’s about having that open conversation, and it’s about employers realising that it is in their interests to get it right.

“No trainer wants to be taken to tribunal and have a reputation that isn’t warranted, so we want them to understand what their rights are as well, what they can do and what they can’t.

“And, yes, the racecourse groups do have big HR teams, but, you know, people can get lost in that, too, so it helps before things become an issue.”

Work within the entertainment industry

AS WE ARE ALL aware the racing industry is an entertainment industry and the mantra is being drummed that we must operate when other people are able to enjoy their leisure time – there is more racing more than ever now on evenings, on Saturdays and Sundays.

And for those working in yards, whether racing or not, racehorses need care seven days a week.

So does a family life and a full-time role in racing really fit together? Merson believes that it does.

“Yes, racing is an entertainment industry, but we want to attract people to this industry,” says Merson . “So we want to ‘role model’ what a good industry should look like, and we can be imaginative enough – this project has shown that we can find ways of getting past traditional hurdles.

“So, maybe, it will be developing creches on the racecourses not just for the public but also for racing employees? After all often the people who never get to go racing are the kids because mum and dad are working.

“If a parent needs to go on the school run and come in later, could he or she do different duties?

“On the racecourse side we’ve got a lot of really top female racecourse executives, and they’re racing on weekends and evenings. So how do we cater for that? We don’t want to lose them to other industries, they’re obviously very adept at running businesses, we’re losing some of our best female talent.

“So how do we think about that, and again, they’re the best people to make those decisions.

“We can say it’s always been done like this, or we can say ‘we are an entertainment industry, we want more people to join this industry, let’s get this right now and it will mean that we will have a younger generation jumping to join the sport’.

“At the moment some are checking out because when they want to have a family. If we want the industry to be sustainable, then we have to change.”

The future plans?

AN obvious way forward would be to help finance a centralised or greater childcare provision, and this is one of the next stages of the project to be assessed. As with everything with the Racing Home any new ideas or plans will be properly researched.

“We’re now getting the data around that, and, as before, we’re also looking at areas of good practice, seeing how it can be done,” outlines Merson.

“And then we will seriously sit down with Racing Welfare and various stakeholders to see what is possible, see whether it should be a central provision or not and how that would work. I don’t want to pre-empt ideas, but once we’ve got the data, definitely it is very important.”

What that has shone out in the work is the cross-industry collaboration that has been achieved taking different views on board and moving forwards with all sides to achieve resolution.

“We spoke to a lot of stakeholders right at the implementation and scoping stage to get their buy-in.

“It’s has been so wonderful to behold how well it can work when people are working for the common good.

“And, yes it really has been like working in a different industry!” reports the highly proactive Merson who has sat on various racing boards. “Yes, we’ve had massive dissenting views, but, instead of that being attritional, it’s been okay. People have asked instead, ‘How are we going to get around this one?’ Each area of potential conflict has been a new start for finding another way of doing things.”

The final question does revolve around the proactive nature of our industry and surely whether “racing” itself, through its own central organisations, should have enacted a lot of this a long time ago

But as Merson says if this had not been discussed then who was ever to know there ever was an issue?

“I don’t think we can blame the industry for that – if nobody was going to talk about it then how could the industry be aware that there was a problem?” she reasons. “I think the secret is to get people talking openly, then we can say yes, there is a problem, let’s address it.

“The old traditional culture wouldn’t let this be a conversation so we’re now changing into a more modern and sustainable culture.”

Maybe a modus operandi for the future governance and management in a broader context for the sport, which as we go to press once again appears to be under pressure.

Comment from Women in Racing

Tallulah Lewis

“WOMEN IN RACING is incredibly proud to have launched the Racing Home Project with three key initiatives, which aim to have immediate impact on the lives of all working parents.

“These initiatives have been identified as some of the serious challenges faced by mothers and parents working in the horseracing industry. To be able to develop and launch meaningful solutions that will positively impact the working lives of many and enhancing quality of life, is hugely rewarding.

“Our gratitude to Racing Foundation and Kindred Group for their foresight in sponsoring the Racing Home Project, the stakeholders who have worked alongside us to launch Racing Home and all the women who contributed to its findings. We believe that these initiatives will bring significant positive change to many people’s lives.”