‘Practical action is needed to tackle the motherhood penalty’, says Jennifer Liston-Smith

Jennifer Liston-Smith, Director and Head of Coaching & Consultancy at My Family Care

We spoke with Jennifer Liston-Smith, Director and Head of Coaching & Consultancy at My Family Care, about the requirements of working mothers and recognition of female talent in today’s modern world.

Is female talent being giving the recognition it deserves?

Yes and no: there is a great deal of discussion and effort at a high level, from Gender Pay Gap publishing requirements, to initiatives such as the Hampton-Alexander review (aimed at increasing the number of women in senior positions in FTSE 350 companies). And leading employers are setting exacting targets. So in some ways there is recognition that there is an issue. But the day-to-day reality – as shown in your piece on the survey by Feel – is that many women are stepping down from the level of seniority they could achieve, in order to obtain a better work-life balance.

Are highly qualified mothers being let down due to lack of understanding on flexible working arrangements?

What we should acknowledge is that there are some stand-out, leading employers. I sit on one of the Top Employer Awards judging panels and we see stellar examples of employers who hire and retain talented individuals through a 21st century approach to how people want to work: i.e. not necessarily 9am-6pm in a central office. Lloyds Banking won the overall top employer in 2017 through their Agile hiring programme. That works to attract talent as it does not feel like an individual having to negotiate around their own needs but it’s more just the way the business gets things done: in an agile, smart way. Where flexibility only happens once people have worked 6 months in a role and through a flexible working application, it’s more hidden. It implies the individual is rocking the boat, rather than recognising that so many people (many more than only working mothers and fathers) want to work in different ways.

What would be your advice to the HR department about how to handle the requirements of working mothers?

Engaging talented working parents starts long before they go on leave. An overall agile culture is a key building block, but also ensuring that line managers and individual team members have great encouragement and tools to have the right conversations at the right time. Can you put together a helpful checklist for line managers and their team members to work through before going on leave, and again prior to return and following return? It might cover having a great handover and hand-back, planning out some Keeping in Touch days, checking in to prepare for a smooth return later on, discussing any proposed new working arrangements in good time and hooking that team member up with a buddy who can pass them news and updates while they are off on leave. It’s a simple step but makes a huge difference: it makes sensible conversations more likely to actually take place and shows there is an expectation that this process needs managing well. And then as life and career continue following parenthood, it’s about flexibility and also challenging your assumptions about what a working mother or working parent might want: they may be more ambitious than you’ve imagined.

According to ONS statistics, the pay gap between male and female workers gets wider from the age of 30. In what ways can we try to recover this?

 One of the interesting aspects is to expect and encourage a more shared model of parenting! Of course not every family has two parents present but where there are two, then making sure that people know about Shared Parental Leave and encouraging dads and partners to consider agile ways of working alongside their family and other commitments does level the playing field. That said, the gap is not all about parenting of course. Some of it is about bias: the ways women and men are appraised differently; what we regard as ‘gravitas’ being quite gendered and so on.

Have you seen an increase in working mothers having to take menial jobs just to acquire flexibility, therefore side-stepping successful corporate careers to be freelance or unemployed?

Like many phenomena that are surfacing in the media, this has actually been the case for some time and we’re only now becoming more aware of it! I’ve been advising employers on how to engage and retain new parents since the early 2000s and there have been many Government studies and employer commentaries and programmes in that period designed to address women (and more recently fathers) dropping out of the workplace around becoming a parent, around having a second child or even when children start school and the need for flexibility might increase again.

How can HR think creatively to stop this from happening?

Offering flexible, agile working as a day 1 right; hiring flexibly. Also pursuing awards for being family-friendly or for being a great employer for women: there is a powerful positive impact on employer brand and employee value proposition through winning these. And also, consider Returnship programmes: perhaps you could win back some of the under-utlised talent out there!

From the Feel survey the flexible and more creative solutions included: working full-time hours which included some days working from home; flexible working-day start or end times to fit around the school day; four days’ working hours spread over five days to provide office cover every day; or nine day fortnights which still ensured business-cover over core hours. All of these things are worth considering: simply thinking a little bit outside the box!

If you’re interested in issues to do with working mothers, please tune into our free live webinar held on the 22nd February.

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