Working mothers still ‘penalised’ for having children

Ian Symes, on changing attitudes towards working mothers

Figures from the recent Mumsnet report looking at working mothers make for disappointing reading. According to the report six out of 10 women feel having children has had a negative effect on their career and nine out of 10 women agreed that there exists a ‘motherhood penalty’ which stalls women’s careers. It has been proved time and again that more diversity in a workforce equals better returns but studies like this one prove that companies are still dragging their feet when it comes to actually ensuring women are provided for in their working environments.

Progression towards breaking down these barriers for women has been painstakingly slow despite numerous organisations and industry bodies lobbying for real change and making an effort to help women feel empowered in their roles. We are now working in the Human Age where talent is the main factor to long term success, regardless of gender. At Right Management, we are passionate about creating a culture of proactive career management, particularly as this is now more than just an HR issue, it has become a real driver of business performance and businesses need to catch up.

More ‘real models’ to aspire to

We recently conducted research, ‘When Women Lead, Businesses Do Better’ to better understand what is holding women back in established organisations. It found that while today there is no shortage of female ‘role models’ at the top, from Arianna Huffington to Sheryl Sandberg, there does not appear to be the same representation amongst middle management. This means that when women reach a certain level of seniority, support and motivation can dry up. We believe that ensuring there are ‘real models’ in an organisation for women to relate to and share experiences with on a personal and professional level will help to eradicate the ‘motherhood penalty’.

These ‘real models’ should be identified at every level of the organisation to give women lots of opportunities to learn about the challenges they have overcome and the support they received to do so. This doesn’t mean that ‘role models’ should be forgotten about altogether. Ideally women need a mix of ‘role models’ to aspire to and ‘real models’ to relate to. Organisations that provide access to ‘real models’, particularly those who are interested in having brave, creative conversations about ambitions, goals and career development should quickly see the anxieties felt by women starting families improve.

Better support for balancing work and home life

It goes without saying that a flexible workplace will help women to work in ways and at times that suit them, where productivity is valued above ‘presenteeism.’ Most forward-thinking employers do have flexible working policies in place, but are failing to review them on a regular basis to check whether they are practical and applicable and whether there are any factors that could prevent them from being taken up. It is important to get it right as women with families are likely to be more productive if they are able to work reduced hours or work remotely, making them feel in charge of their careers and trusted. This, in turn, contributes to the engagement and motivation of workers.

Once again, women-owned business environments provide a great example of this. Technology and alternative ways of working are more common in these businesses, so flexibility has become the norm. Helpful in a number of ways, this flexibility also promotes the notion that staff should be measured by their performance outputs, not whether they are sat at their desks or not. Larger organisations should learn from this and look to implement the necessary flexibility and technology to help women balance work and home life.

Prevent barriers to career progression

Our findings, like those of Mumsnet’s, showed that attitudes towards working mothers desperately need to change. Many women recognise that having children will put pressures on their work life and career prospects, not to mention their families, as it is widely acknowledged that success in established organisations requires the sacrifice of many family responsibilities. One of our respondents went as far to say that there appears to still be a perception in the corporate world that “you have your kids or you have a career.” However, many women, understandably, just aren’t willing to make this sacrifice.

Many organisations are aware of these anxieties, but aren’t implementing the right practices to help women in such positions. This can leave female employees to feel as if the problem lies with them individually, but in the majority of cases this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, more often than not, it is the organisation itself that needs to change and introduce the necessary measures for women to talk through barriers and career development.

In particular, coaching can provide support for working mums, helping them to manage expectations and workloads, while also paying attention to their larger career plan. For women who may be returning from maternity leave, or another critical career point, it provides a confidential sounding board, which is invaluable if they feel unsupported in their work environment. We’ve heard from countless women who feel guilty and concerned about having to balance young children with work, but coaching helps remind them of their strengths and gave them clear direction in their roles.

What next?

If businesses are serious about change (and there are few who shouldn’t be, they need to start by making a real commitment to breaking with longstanding biases. There is no ‘quick-fix’ to breaking the barriers preventing women from achieving their full potential. The sooner we start having open and honest conversations around these barriers, the sooner we will be on the road to a better workplace for all employees, not just working mothers.


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