I met Sarah Durrant, an audit manager at PKF Cooper Parry, at a networking event and was really interested to hear her story of personal transitions. This mini-series explores Sarah’s experiences in relocating to Derby from London, becoming a new mum, and finding a company which values her responsibilities as a parent rather than tolerates them.
Sarah kindly agreed to meet me again so that I could hear more and the following is episode 1 of her story: it focuses on her relocation to Derby from London to be with her partner, the unexpected challenges that arose and how it impacted her life.
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Five years ago Sarah was a Senior Manager in an accountancy firm living and working in London doing a job which she loved. Work was everything and the culture was one where, when the long working day was done, the socialising with colleagues began. Sarah is ambitious and was highly regarded and did well. “Before I met my partner my work was my absolute focus, I would work evenings, weekends, there was no limit to my availability.”
Managing the unexpected
Things started to change when Sarah met her partner who lived in Derby. At first she spent weekends in Derby but then decided to move there and commute. Her work output was the same but she began to feel guilty — a common experience for women when they feel their time is split between personal and work commitments. “There was nothing overt coming from my employer but you could feel the change. Little comments were made. You have gone from being someone for whom they know that work is your life to suddenly realising that was no longer the case. You could just feel that the level of support just wasn’t there. I could feel the withdrawal from the organisation which made me feel guilty.”
Having worked hard to achieve the position she had Sarah was determined not to give up her career. “The firm I was at was a male dominated firm and you always felt you had to be better than your male counterparts to get the same level of recognition. When I started commuting my availability shrunk. I couldn’t go to networking events in the evening, I couldn’t stay late and have my face seen. Then when I did get home I had a family I was trying to build (Sarah’s partner had two young children). I had a really supportive boss at my firm who said I could work from home one day a week. He was great, but then his role was taken away from him and my new boss wouldn’t let me have that.”
From feeling highly valued to worthless
For the first few months it was fine but psychologically Sarah was suffering and eventually this affected her physical health too. “I had gone from a place where I knew I was performing to a high level to feeling like I just couldn’t do what I had done before. I felt miserable. The stress levels were unbelievable. Even when I was home I felt I had to keep working to make up for the time I wasn’t there and I felt like I had to constantly apologise for my life and that’s what made me sad. Because I wasn’t down the pub with the guys or going to networking events but I was still doing the same job to the same ability. The work I could definitely manage, it was the peripherals around it, a way of being that when you didn’t engage in it you were seen to be not pulling your weight. There was no support and no conversation about what can we do given the changes. This is the role and you either fit into it or not.”
“I went from feeling highly valued to worthless. Psychologically it’s really, really hard when you have spent your life as a professional and are still the same professional person but because you no longer engage in certain social things it affects everything.”
The stress resulted in successive illnesses and following recovery from having her tonsils removed Sarah was then hit by a debilitating virus.
In a firm where there was not a high level of female partners, and those who there were did not have children, Sarah realised that there were no other women she could share her experience with. “I was adamant I wouldn’t give up my job up but it became miserable. I would go to work and feel nervous. I sat there feeling like people were judging me.”
Moving to new job with a different culture
Sarah took the difficult decision to leave the job she had loved.
“When I told them they were really supportive and gave me two paid days leave to come to Derby for interviews. I just don’t think I was giving them what they had come to expect. I no longer fit the company.” Sarah felt lucky in that there were a number of firms in the Midlands wanting to hire her. And although there was a better financial offer she decided on PFK CooperParry because “Here they were offering a different way of life. There was no choice to be made.”
Three and a half years on, Sarah reflected on her first few months: “It was a surreal experience. My last firm had lovely people but the culture was one of ‘no life’. The job was everything. Coming here, there was no politics, no-one seemed to judge you. One of the Partner’s here said to me “You don’t believe it do you?” And I was waiting for the bubble to burst and for something to happen and it just never happened.”
In the next episode Sarah shares her trials and tribulations on becoming a mother in her mid-30s.
Read more on Sarah’s story:
Interview by Yasmin Holmes