'I'm an anomaly in the playground' - Sophie Dekkers

The UK director of easyJet on dealing with working-mother guilt and why women are holding themselves back.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 23 Aug 2016

You started out as a market researcher and have made your way right up to director of UK market at easyJet. How?

I’ve given 100% to every role I've had, regardless of the hours I’ve needed to work, or the tasks I’ve been asked to do. I’ve embraced change and have always been a ‘can do’ type of person. I guess it’s this attitude that has motivated me to constantly put my hand up for new challenges and I get excited about change. That’s not to say I’ve always been successful in every role I’ve applied for – I think it’s how you handle rejection and pick yourself up that makes you stronger – but I do believe everything happens for a reason. There’s always something better around the corner, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time. For example I wasn’t able to do the Masters that I had a place on because the finance fell through just a few days before I was due to start. So I decided to postpone the Masters and work for a year and only to apply for roles that I wanted to do more than the Masters. I only applied for one role, on the Millward Brown graduate scheme, and that’s where my career began.

Since then I've worked in a variety of different roles. When I started my current role it took me a long time to gain confidence. I thought I’d be ‘found out’. But the more I become visible internally and externally, the more this boosts my confidence. Now, after two years in the role, I feel I’ve got the balance about right; I’m able to be a leader in the business and a successful mother to my daughter.

What’s the biggest challenge you have overcome personally, and how did you do it?

Returning to work after maternity leave and deciding to apply for this role within weeks was probably one of the biggest challenges. If I didn’t throw my hat in the ring for the role, I knew I might regret it. These opportunities don’t come up very often. I spoke to colleagues and my predecessor and worked out how many evenings/nights away would be regularly required, the amount of travel involved etc, and then I was able to have an informed discussion with my husband and mother-in-law about the commitment of the role, and whether we could make it work. Thankfully their support has made it possible.

What’s the biggest challenge facing women in business today?

I think the biggest challenge is women holding themselves back - not applying for roles unless they’re at least 80% confident they could do the role. It’s a known fact that men apply for roles when they think they’re 50% capable, and they learn the rest as they go. We need to be prepared to give things a go, and to support each other as we get to grips with new challenges. It would also help if it was more accepted by society for men to work part-time as well as women.

You have a young daughter. How do you juggle it all and how do you deal with working-mother guilt?

I have a really supportive husband and great parents-in-law that live locally, and I’m extremely grateful for this! Sometimes I feel guilty, but I know I would be worse as a stay-at-home mother; my daughter does so many more activities at nursery than I would be able to cater for, or have the patience to do at home. She’s been at nursery since she was nine months old, so she doesn’t know any different, and she certainly seems to have developed really well in this learning environment and interacting with other children. I make sure we do activities together which she enjoys at the weekend (dance classes and swimming). I have a joint electronic calendar with my husband, so we know when each other will be out, and that really helps with planning. I generally do the morning nursery drop offs, and he picks her up at the end of the day (so he starts work earlier, and I can work later in the day). I have to be a lot more organised. I also try to work from home at least one day a fortnight so I can pick her up and do bedtime on at least one weekday.

It also helps that I have role models within my business who are successful mothers and business leaders. Just look at Carolyn McCall. It’s inspirational to have a FTSE 100 CEO who is female, and also has children – she’s proof that it is possible. Carolyn gave me some great advice: she said I would be an anomaly in the playground, working full-time and being a mum, and to make sure I found time for the moments that matter (the school plays and sports days) and keep them sacred in my diary. She said she’s a better mother because she works, and I agree; I probably am too. The time I have with my daughter is sacred, and I don’t feel I’ve had to compromise my work life to have a family.

Sophie Dekkers will be speaking at MT's Inspiring Women event in Birmingham on 21 April. Check out the programme here.

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