Karen Mattison
Ashoka Fellow since 2011   |   United Kingdom

Karen Mattison

Timewise Jobs
Karen Mattison is changing the United Kingdom employment market to create high-quality, part-time employment opportunities for women who need a flexible schedule to accommodate family and other…
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This description of Karen Mattison's work was prepared when Karen Mattison was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.


Karen Mattison is changing the United Kingdom employment market to create high-quality, part-time employment opportunities for women who need a flexible schedule to accommodate family and other personal needs. Through Women Like Us, Karen is both creating a pipeline of experienced, skilled women for very senior roles and reducing the high levels of “worklessness” among women by helping employers open up more flexible working opportunities across all sectors and salary brackets.

The New Idea

Karen recognized that the changing U.K. workforce was experiencing a classic market failure: a large supply of skilled, qualified women interested in staying-in (or re-entering) the workforce part-time, and an increasing number of large- and medium-sized employers who could hire a part-time worker, yet the lack of an efficient and effective way for them to find each other. To meet this need, in 2005 Karen created a not-for-profit recruitment and placement organization, Women Like Us, that is helping employers design part-time roles that meet their needs and connecting them to qualified candidates who are seeking part-time postitions. Women Like Us works with employers of all sizes and in all sectors to better define the core needs for employment positions, and, where it makes sense, to be more creative in designing a job to accommodate a part-time employee. She then works across the recruitment spectrum to match qualified employees interested in part-time work, whether it is finding entry-level or low-income jobs that help families rise out of poverty or highly skilled senior roles that promote greater diversity and gender-equality at the top of a company. Karen’s focus is on supporting women to find not just any part-time job, but the right job to match their skills and experience.

Women Like Us is the only recruitment firm in the U.K. to specialize in part-time vacancies. Like a commercial recruitment agency, Women Like Us charges organizations to find suitable candidates for their roles. From attracting high-quality applicants to screening and short-listing, Women Like Us offers a range of services to employers. Employers can also advertise vacancies on Women Like Us’ online jobs board for a flat fee. To date over 1,500 employers have recruited through Women Like Us from companies such as KPMG, Harrods, and Credit Suisse to citizen organizations (COs) such as Save the Children and Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

Unlike a commercial agency, however, Women Like Us also agressively advocates for a workplace that better accomodates family needs, both in helping employers conceptualize how they can hire and retain more part-time employees and through government policy change. This is key to growing the part-time jobs market, as some employers need to understand how providing a flexible, part-time role will make good business sense. Women Like Us also offers counseling and support to employees who are re-entering the workforce and interview practice, IT training, CV clinics, and personal coaching to any woman who is in need of extra guidance. Those who can pay are charged a fee. For those women with low incomes, bursaries are provided so that they can access the service free of charge. Karen founded Women Like Us to give mothers the choice to fit work around the needs of their families without losing their value in the workplace. From her own personal experience of being a working mother who struggled to find a flexible job that matched her skills and experience, Karen saw a gap in the recruitment market that commercial agencies have traditionally failed to address. In addition to helping mothers back into work, Karen believes that a vibrant part-time jobs market will ultimately benefit a whole range of other social groups such as caregivers, the elderly, and part-time students.

The Problem

The shortage of part-time roles affects women from all socioeconomic backgrounds from entry level to very senior jobs. Over 500,000 women in the U.K. want to work but cannot find a job to fit around the needs of their families. These women are effectively excluded from the labor market because of the lack of flexible employment opportunities on offer.

For single women with young children worklessness is one of the prime causes of poverty and social exclusion. For families with two parents, a second part-time income can make enough of a difference to lift them above the poverty line. Two-thirds of women registered with Women Like Us are potential second earners. However, most of these women cannot access government employment support services because their partner is in work, even though the overwhelming majority live in the most deprived neighborhoods and cannot afford to work full-time because of the cost of childcare.

On the other hand, employers are concerned about retaining high-quality, senior-level employees who have new family demands. Employers are also motivated by encouraging greater gender diversity at senior management levels. Because women with families are dropping out of the workforce or trading down for jobs beneath their skill-level in order to have flexibility, there is not an adequate pipeline of experienced, qualified women to serve at the highest levels of companies and other institutions. For women who are lucky enough to work for an employer who agrees to a flexible schedule after a child is born, she may ultimately be “trapped” in a job and have little growth opportunity or ability to move to another employer because there simply is no market for or availablity of part-time jobs.

Traditionally, part-time positions have only been offered for low-skilled, low paid vacancies, which offer little or no career progression. In London specifically there are fewer part-time jobs available than across the rest of the country, and of the part-time jobs that do exist almost half are below the London living wage (£8.30 p/h or US$13.40). The shortage of quality part-time opportunities available means that working mums often have little choice but to take roles which they are overqualified for, simply because of their flexibility. This has led to a significant gender pay gap. In the U.K. the part-time gender pay gap currently stands at 36 percent.

The lack of part-time vacancies available can to a certain extent be attributed to the bias of profit-driven recruitment companies, who have encouraged employers to turn part-time opportunities into full-time roles. As recruitment companies are typically paid through a fixed percentage commission of a candidate’s annual salary, placing a candidate in a part-time position means that they only earn a part-fee. Consequently, there has been little financial incentive for traditional recruitment agencies to stimulate a part-time recruitment sector. As a CO driven by social and not economic gain, Women Like Us is uniquely positioned to profoundly influence the recruitment market.

The Strategy

Karen’s aim is to grow a national market for part-time jobs. To fulfil this ambition Karen has a three-fold approach, which focuses on (i) developing the supply (ii) the demand and (iii) the conditions needed for such a market to thrive. According to this strategy competition from other companies will be a sign of success, as it is the market and the idea, and not necessarily her own organization, which she is focused on growing.

The first part of Karen’s strategy focuses on finding mothers who would like to work part-time and connecting them to high-quality flexible roles. As a mother herself, Karen knew from meeting other parents that there was a wealth of untapped potential at the school gates. She therefore decided to pilot the idea for Women Like Us at her son’s primary school, sending flyers home to parents in their children’s bookbags. This recruitment strategy was extremely effective in reaching the right target audience and has been a key driver behind the organization’s growth. Today, Women Like Us partners with 232 schools and childrens’ centers across 17 London boroughs, reaching over 100,000 parents. This has resulted in over 23,000 parents registering their interest with Women Like Us online. Karen’s unique strategy has since been replicated by the U.K. government, who have launched a national initiative, the School Gates Employment Support Initiative aimed at helping parents back into work by providing employment and enterprise support in primary schools.

Karen knew that the challenge to getting women back into work would not be limited to finding enough potential candidates. She realized that after taking a long period of time off to have children many women suffer from a lack of confidence and professional identity. The prospect of going back to work can be daunting and many women need additional support throughout the recruitment process to overcome any hurdles they may face along the way. Karen therefore recognized the need to develop a range of training and advisory services to help prepare women returning to work with the practical and emotional support they need. A large part of the organization’s work subsequently focuses on delivering workshops and 1-1 coaching sessions for those needing help with their job search, as well as CV workshops, IT training sessions, and interview practice.

The second part of Karen’s strategy focuses on growing the number and range of part-time jobs advertised. For many companies the business benefits of part-time speak for themselves. Flexible working can help to increase staff retention, improve diversity within the workplace, cut costs, tap into operational peaks and troughs and access hard to find skills. Recent surveys have shown that employees who work flexibly are more satisfied with their work and are less likely to quit. For small and medium enterprises and third-sector organizations in particular, part-time recruitment means that employers can access senior skills for affordable rates. Women Like Us has found that employers can create part-time positions to fill their needs in the areas of marketing, public relations and communications, finance, accounting, human resources, and business development.

Convincing employers to take on part-time workers still requires a forward thinking approach from CEOs and HR personnel, and this attitude change can be slow and incremental. Many employers create full-time positions—when their needs could be satisfied by a part-time worker—because of a lack of imagination about creating part-time positions, or because the employers fear that they will not be able to attract high-quality people. Karen is helping employers be more creative in thinking about how they can meet their needs, and addressing the barriers which may prevent employers from hiring part-time staff through bespoke consultancy services. In founding Women Like Us, Karen wanted to prove that it is possible for a company to succeed commercially with a part-time workforce. 97 percent of the organization’s thirty-five employees therefore work part-time and over 80 percent are women who have returned to work after having children. This is a key operational decision as it means that staff can relate well to the mothers they are working with. It also means that Women Like Us is a model organization for the success of part-time work.

The final part of Karen’s strategy is to create a change in public perception of the productivity and status of part-time work. She is doing this by creating a national debate around the benefits of flexible working, influencing the opinion of government, employers, and key thought leaders. Through Women Like Us Karen has secured funding from charitable foundations to carry out groundbreaking research into the employment issues facing parents, as well as the factors which have prompted employers to hire part-time workers. She has played a key role in changing government thinking around the impact part-time employment can have on child poverty and gender equality. Women Like Us is frequently asked to sit on government taskforces regarding flexible working and maternal employment.

The Person

Coming from a strongly socially minded family, Karen knew from a very early age that she would later work in the citizen sector, though none of the traditional professions of her family appealed to her—her father is a criminal barrister and her mother a social worker. After returning from a kibbutz in Israel, Karen studied psychology at Oxford University. Yet after the freedom she had enjoyed overseas Karen found it difficult to adapt to the rigid, academic environment at university and considered abandoning her studies. It was only her involvement in student politics that rekindled her interest in academic life. Whilst an undergraduate, Karen was shocked by the level of unreported sexual harassment and campaigned for the creation of Oxford University’s first Women’s Officer post. Following the campaign’s success Karen took a year sabbatical from her psychology degree to take up the position. During this time Karen set out to draw attention to the issue by carrying out a detailed survey of the level of sexual assault at the university, which attracted considerable national attention including coverage in mainstream media. She also implemented measures to increase female students’ safety, such as organizing a women’s nightbus which she personally drove around Oxford late at night.

After graduating from university, Karen decided against practicing as a psychologist, preferring instead to enter the citizen sector where she felt she could bring about broader social change. By the age of 30, Karen had progressed to become the CEO of a mental health charity, which focused on the stigmatisation of mental health in the media. Frustrated by the charity’s reliance on grant-funding, Karen set up an income-generating arm, which earned revenue by producing training films for healthcare professionals. She then went on to found the Mental Health Testimony project, which documented the stories of individuals who had been incarcerated in psychiatric institutions for twenty or thirty years. Often patients had been put in hospital because they were unmarried and pregnant, because they were homosexual or because they had learning disabilities. The project included fifty life-story video interviews with mental health service users and is now housed in the British Library. Karen was inspired to set up the Mental Health Testimony project by the work Steven Spielberg had done to document the testimonies of Holocaust Survivors, including her grandmother. She saw how important it was to record these stories, as many of the Holocaust survivors were dying out and Karen recognized that if she did not do something to document the accounts of those who lived in the psychiatric institutions their stories would be lost too.

After having her first child Karen returned to Mental Health Media in a part-time capacity. However she soon found herself in a trap that many women find themselves in: she could not find another senior part-time role to move into as the only part-time roles available were junior positions in administration and finance. Unwilling to compromise either her flexibility or her professional development, Karen decided to set up an independent business working with other voluntary organizations. She was soon inundated with business and, interestingly, many of the requests from her clients were to help them hire more women like Karen.

At the same time she was struck by conversations at the school gates with other mothers—former lawyers, accountants, and marketing executives who wanted to go back to work but could not find any flexible vacancies. Realizing that there were many more women in her position and that there were organizations out there who wanted to hire skilled part-time workers, Karen founded Women Like Us.

Karen is committed to breaking down all of the barriers that hold women back from re-entering the workforce after giving birth and has already determined the need for better part-time childcare if she is to continue to grow a thriving part-time jobs market in the U.K. She is planning to re-brand Women Like Us, taking the focus away from working mothers to a brand that speaks for the benefits of part-time work in general, including of course, men.

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