IIt sounds like an idyllic job-sharing for two mums – Vicky cared for Emily’s newborn baby so she could interview for the job they both wanted, while Emily filled in Vicky when she installed her child in school.
But these are no ordinary part-time roles – Vicky and Emily, who cannot reveal their real names for security reasons, are responsible for the overall counter-terrorism mission at GCHQ, the UK security agency and of intelligence.
The pair, who are marking the end of their first year in the role, have described their high-profile job-sharing at the Guardian as their ‘superpower’, which doubles their output and efficiency, and ultimately makes the UK a safer place.
The first women to jointly lead the counter-terrorism mission at GCHQ as deputy directors, Vicky and Emily made the decision when Vicky’s baby was just a few months old in May 2020, with Emily covering both roles until Vicky ends her maternity leave.
The women, who this week topped a list of top performers working part-time compiled by flexible working specialists Timewise, sketched out the logistics in a series of email responses. They both work 3.5 days, crossing paths one day. Their classified and unclassified inboxes are shared – people don’t know which of them replies.
“What we love is the partnership we have,” Vicky said. “Every day, we are faced with new and complex issues. Having a rock-solid support network makes things easier, much more enjoyable, and ultimately pays dividends for GCHQ’s larger intelligence mission.
When asked if they needed to be friends for it to work, Emily replied: “It’s kind of more than friendship because we’re so committed to each other professionally and personally – it’s all about faith and trust.”
The couple met while working in the United States, a decade before they thought about sharing a job. Professionally, they each appreciated the other’s ability to cut to the chase and resolve complex or contentious issues, but after having children they realized they also shared a set of values and experiences.
“People have said we bounce off each other because we both have so much energy, it’s like production doubled – that’s our superpower as a job share,” Vicky said.
A poll commissioned by Timewise to mark 10 years of the part-time power list found that half of the UK public ‘still don’t believe it’s possible to have a part-time career’ (compared to three-quarters in 2012) while almost half (48%) said they “wouldn’t give a part-time colleague an important or business-critical task”. ONS data analyzed by the consultancy shows that 750,000 people are working part-time in senior and critical jobs in the UK.
Vicky and Emily say having two bosses deal with extremely complex and diverse terrorist threats allows them to test life-saving decisions. “We are increasing our creativity and ability to spot risks and opportunities, which is really essential in our business,” said Emily.
It is far from easy. Playing a key role in keeping Britons safe gives them a ‘huge sense of pride’ but a heavy burden of responsibility. “Our teams can feel the weight of personal guilt, grief and failure for real-world events beyond their control,” Vicky said. “It is essential for us to support them.”
But sharing the work means, despite the demands of the role, that they can see their children and even, on occasion, have time to think. “It allows the thinking part of your brain to intensify,” Emily said. “And it really helps you prioritize ruthlessly.”
They fiercely guard their own and each other’s time at home with a “very high threshold” needed for both of them to attend an event.
“Non-working days are untouchable,” Vicky said. “We both have young children and we have to make sure we are a role model. We don’t want to be defenders if in reality it’s not possible to do so.