When Karen O’Reilly couldn’t find a job to fit around her family life, she decided to do something about it. She tells Marjorie Brennan about running her own business which helps women returning to the workforce

THE best businesses are born when someone spots a gap in the market. When accountant Karen O’Reilly was looking for a job that would fit around her family life and caring for her two children, she discovered there wasn’t just a gap but a chasm when it came to flexible working.

O’Reilly had returned to Ireland after running a number of businesses in France, and took time out to settle her two children back in school.

“After a year or two, I decided I’d go back as they were well settled. I wanted that work-life balance, so I looked around for flexible work and discovered there was none there,” she says. O’Reilly decided to set up a recruitment agency specifically for parents who wanted to fit their work in around their family lives, and the result was employmum.ie.

According to O’Reilly, helping women who have taken time out after having children, to return to the workforce is even more important now there are skills shortages in so many areas.

“Unemployment in Ireland is at 6.6%, the lowest rate since 2008. All the time I am talking to employers, they say they can’t find good people. I tell them they are there, if they are prepared to be a little more flexible.

“I have streams of CVs from people who are qualified and skilled and they want to work. Employers are going to have to start thinking differently about the way they employ people. It is now becoming an employees’ market and flexible working is the perfect solution.”

One of the firms which has sourced staff from employmum is accountantonline.ie, which was set up by mum of three Larissa Feeney, to give her the work-life balance she needed.


Rose Kervick is a director of accountantonline.ie and says the firm shares a similar ethos to Employmum.

“We are delighted to work with Employmum; we are very grateful there are women available to work for us because there is a shortage of qualified accountants and unless we provide a flexible working environment, we lose our ability to compete. The name of the company may be Employmum but we didn’t go with Karen because she was representing mums, we went with her because she is helping us find skilled professionals.”

O’Reilly says a huge talent pool is being wasted because our culture doesn’t accommodate different ways of working. “The traditional mode of employment in Ireland is bums on seats from 9am to 5.30pm. That’s ridiculous when technology allows you to work remotely and flexibly in so many roles; there are many others that can be adapted to suit flexible working.”

She says women’s confidence can suffer when they have left the workplace for a number of years, which means they are fearful of applying for jobs when they are ready to return.

“Every single day, I am hearing from women who are really qualified and have fantastic experience and skills. On average, my candidates have 15 years’ experience, in pretty high-level roles in some cases, yet their confidence is gone. I look at their fantastic CVs, and they are almost apologising for ringing me.”

As a result, O’Reilly has added career coaching to the services that Employmum provides. “It is a female way of thinking — I read recently that if a man looks at a job spec, and he can do maybe 40% of what’s there, he will chance it and go for the job; a woman will need to tick everything on the list before they submit their CV. We have to get beyond that way of thinking and learn how to promote ourselves better. Women also have to learn how to sell their career gap in a positive way, not apologise for it. They are probably the hardest couple of years’ work they’ve done anyway, in terms of organisation, negotiation skills, and all the rest.”

Making it work for women - Fitting a job around family life


Nina Cáit Gilbert is a graphic designer and mum of two who has gained several clients with the help of Employmum.

“I worked full-time as a graphic designer in London for five years. I gave up my job because there was no flexibility. I didn’t see my son in the evening because he was in bed by 7pm. I moved back to Ireland about a year and a half ago, when we had another baby on the way. I heard Karen on the radio and I thought her company was offering exactly what I was after — flexibility and working with clients who don’t treat having a family as a hindrance. She matched me with two really good clients and I started gaining more after that and building my business, designbird.ie. Karen and Employmum gave me confidence and a great start.”

O’Reilly says Employmum welcomes interest from anyone seeking flexible working. “We have a few dads too — they also don’t have to be a parent, but that is the niche we have concentrated on.”

She says employers should recognise the benefits of flexible working in attracting and keeping more staff. “We would love more employers to come on board, there are so many positives to embracing flexible working, not least cost, which is always the bottom line. You are also building loyalty among your staff and the good people will stay if you offer flexibility. The holy grail for working mums is balance — when you don’t have to give up time with your children, or your career.

“It seems crazy that the State has invested in educating all these women who aren’t working now because they can’t find flexible roles.”


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