There’s a special place in hell…

…which by 10.30 on Saturday evening, I was rather hoping was reserved for railway engineers who decree that intercity trains should limp along between Peterborough and Doncaster and turn the journey home from London into an insufferable eternity of irate (and increasingly refreshed) day-trippers.

The next infernal circle, though, is – according to Heather McGregor – the preserve of women who don’t help other women. I know this, because (10 hours before sitting in coach B and losing the will to live) I was in the glamourous surroundings of the Bafta headquarters in Piccadilly, listening to a succession of inspirational women brought together by Mumsnet for their first ever Workfest.

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I was lucky enough to win a ticket having written this post , all about my wobbles (real and virutual) about shedding my mummy-skin and returning to work. When I first read the day’s outline, it sounded perfect for me, although I must be honest and admit that I couldn’t have afforded to pay to go (I understand that there are plans for future events outside of London).

The day started with a slightly rushed arrival into the main auditorium (note to self: read streetplan before arriving into central London ) just as the panel discussion got going. On the theme of “How Do You Do It All?” six inspiring women with pretty stellar careers took questions from the audience and discussed the realities of combining family life with full-on (even if not full-time) work. The overwhelming answer seemed to be “Don’t” – take whatever help is available; share parenting duties with partners; be proactive in presenting solutions to work and taking ownership of your career; recognise that some things have to give.

The day then split up into break-out sessions, my first of which was “The Importance of a Great CV” with Heather McGregor (FT’s Mrs Moneypenny and presenter of Channel 4’s Super Scrimpers). The copies of my CV which I had dutifully printed off and brought with me curled up inside their plastic wallet in shame as it became increasingly apparent that they and greatness were somewhat far removed. Too long (one page!); too boring (no list of single present participle interests: reading, travelling, swimming); too gappy (account for all your time, no matter what). My leaner, meaner CV will showcase the three key facts about me which are apparently all that anyone will take from an initial read; and make much more of my “social capital” – an idea which anyone planning a career break for whatever reason should heed. This includes everything you do which is unpaid; drawing attention to all the skills and experience you’ve gained elsewhere. I am not sure how to spin the talent of distracting a child from a tantrum for refusing to allow him to pick the moles off my skin, but Mrs McGregor has inspired me to try.

My next session was “Boosting Your Confidence”. Maybe it’s a woman thing; maybe it’s just me, but confidence is a tricky, elusive quality. Actually, I don’t think it is just me, given that the same session was the only one to be repeated three times over the course of the day, each one fully booked. Whatever the reasons, working life for many women I think constitutes a kind of tight-rope walk of holding your nerve. Once you look down, once you stop, the balance is gone and it’s a fiendishly difficult thing to retrieve. The theme of confidence came up time and time again throughout the day: women ask for less, take on more, have lower expectations and yet, very often, out-perform their male counterparts both in terms of quality and quantity of work. Was my confidence boosted by the session? Perhaps not as such, but it was – as always – good to remember that the majority of the people are quaking inside a lot of the time.

Lunchtime: delicious food and the chance of a ten minute career coaching clinic, mine with Zoe Finton of CareerLovingMum. Again, no answers, but it felt incredibly helpful and rather indulgent to be 100% selfish and self-focussed even for that short period of time.

Lunchtime also gave me a chance to look around the sponsors’ lounge, where Barclays, Honda and Asda were on hand to give advice ranging from business finance to choosing a new wardrobe (though sadly not, I discovered, for those of us long of leg).

For me, the highlight of the day was the first afternoon session, “Returning to Work”. There was a fantastic range of talented, enthusiastic, passionate women, with a vast range of experiences to share, and the discussion could have gone on for hours. This, I think, was the strongest point of WorkFest for women like me, who are neither contemplating an initial return from maternity leave nor looking to start their own business. Being able to be frank and open with women with whom I had so much in common; hearing other people’s stories and aspirations, and with expert input from career insiders, helped me to formulate some of the ideas and emotions I have about returning to work and to put it into a context other than the purely personal.

The final session I chose was Interview Skills, an excellent, thorough, practical guide to – as the name suggests – preparing for an interview. My notes from this one are legion; bullet points, reminders, pointers, suggestions – they will be typed up and filed away as a “how-to” instruction manual alongside my made-over CV and newly-confident interview poise.

The day wrapped up with two keynote speeches from Thomasina Miers, who won Masterchef in 2005 before going on to start her own chain of Mexican restaurants and Apprentice 2009 winner Yasmina Siadatan, who now works for James Caan of Dragon’s Den. A small, Northern, un-entrepreneurial part of me was prepared (unjustly) to be slightly resistant to these speakers on the basis that they didn’t obviously match up with my own dreams and aspirations, but I found both to be passionate, charming and inspirational. Hearing that people who are now so obviously successful went through periods of not knowing what on earth they were doing with their lives; that they even now, loving where they are, they walk into a situation and quake with fear – women, as Tommi said, are great at getting everyone else’s shit together, but they can be equally great at reassuring and encouraging and inspiring.

All of which leads me back to my opening quote. I struggled how to write this post, actually; not because I was asked to review it in return for my ticket (which I wasn’t), but because it was hard to split out a birds-eye view of the day to give others an idea of what it involved from what it meant to me personally at this stage of my journey back to work. It was, actually, a kind of heaven to be around other women facing the same decisions and challenges, and to hear other people’s ideas, success, suggestions and overview of the market.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about work, and whenever I do I feel the Privilege Fairy sitting on my shoulder muttering that middle-class mothers’ career problems are deserving of the world’s smallest violins (if that). She is doubtless right. They are problems nonetheless, though, and I think Mumsnet have identified a great way of starting to help us address them. If only they could do the same with the trains.

****Fellow blogger @The40yearold also won a ticket to Mumsnet; you can read her blog (complete with fantastic notes!) here****

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