International Women's Day Sarah Martin SmartWorks Helping women back into work


    As well as being an amazing female leader at Unify Energy, Sarah Martin also sits on the Board of Trustees at the UK charity, SmartWorks. The team harnesses the power of clothes and confidence to support women to be the best that they can be to help them succeed in interviews and transform their lives.

    Women are referred to the charity from job centres, work programmes, prisons, care homes, homeless shelters and mental health charities. These women will often have been unsuccessful in a high number of job applications and unfortunately suffer a lack of confidence in their abilities, which is where SmartWorks aims to help.

    “There’s a lot of great charities supporting men and women in different ways when it comes to employability, and we take a special approach where we empower women to feel as good as they can feel through a combination of dressing and styling in addition to coaching for the interview itself,” explains Sarah. “They’ll start off with a personalised styling session where we can make them feel special, valued and loved, and really worth that time and effort.” The women then get an outfit to wear to the interview, as well as a capsule wardrobe to tie them over until their first paycheck if they get the job. All of the clothing is a high quality mix of unsold retail and lovingly donated items; the service and clothes are all free and hers to keep.

    A lot of the women using the SmartWorks service do so after long term unemployment and feeling out of touch about what that workplace looks like today. Or they may have been disproportionately impacted by something like the pandemic. For example, last year the charity helped a number of women who lost their jobs when Thomas Cook went out of business. “This was an opportunity for us to step in and help a group of women in a market that was shrinking. Those women had less opportunities and jobs to apply for because more are applying for them,” says Sarah. “We worked with one client who spoke about competing with maybe 10 to 15 of her friends for the same role, knowing that the job is really critical for all of them to be able to support their families.”

    By carrying out the styling session first, the women feel good about themselves. “We make sure that that first hour that they spend is absolutely lovely and they get gold plated treatment and it makes them feel really good about themselves” explains Sarah. “By the second part of the session - the interview coaching - it’s built their confidence up so they’re in the best place to receive the information.” The coaches have information about the job they’re applying for and their previous experience, so that they can prepare them for the interview process and teach how to transfer skills that they have developed over time either through unemployment or being a mother, for example.

    “Ultimately, we provide that end to end service where they feel loved, valued, appreciated to go and get that job that can really really impact not just their lives, but the lives of their families,” says Sarah.

    Last year, SmartWorks turned five and the charity celebrated delivering over 2,000 appointments with women in Greater Manchester, attributing to 11,000 hours of volunteer time and 70% of women getting the jobs that they applied for - an amazing achievement in terms of conversion rate.

    And the SmartWorks didn’t stop when the pandemic hit. “We’ve been open when we’ve been able to and when we haven’t been able to do face to face we’ve adapted to do virtual styling,” explains Sarah. “We’ve done virtual interview coaching and we post out really cute, filled with love, care parcels of items for a woman to wear during the interview. She might also be doing that interview on Zoom, but she feels really good about herself.”

    SmartWorks has gathered data around the impact of the pandemic on women by speaking directly to women about how they’re feeling.

    39% of women in Greater Manchester said their mental health has got worse since covid-19.
    29% feel that they’re struggling or worse off financially than men compared to 16-18% previously.
    21% said that their employability had worsened.
    81% of women said that their income or their employability had physically changed. And that’s down to change in the number of hours they’ve worked.

    It’s clear that women have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic for a number of reasons, from being more likely to be furloughed or made redundant due to caregiving responsibilities, to being more like to work in the industries that have been heavily impacted by the pandemic, such as personal care or hospitality.

    “I think we have to be really in tune to the fact that a lot of people after the pandemic are going to need support - men and women alike - and we have to bear that in mind from an emotional perspective in addition to the physical, financial and wellbeing side,” says Sarah.

    It is crucial that we give women the support they need to ensure that the impact of the pandemic does not set back the decades of progress that we have made in edging closer to gender parity. This year, International Women’s Day is calling for everyone to ‘Choose to Challenge’. As individuals and businesses, we must challenge the way we think and operate, so that women are not disproportionately affected once more as we enter the recovery stage of this crisis.

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