shutterstock_135263717The landscape for professional women in the workplace is mixed with positive elements as well as significant areas for improvement. In our study of over 1,000 professional women and working mothers, we identified a career paradox for UK women in that while many painted a positive picture of their professional progress, a significant proportion also indicated they experienced a far less supportive reality.

At first glance our latest research shows the view from professional women as being very positive. The majority of women – 80% – view their employer as being supportive and 16% of these say they couldn’t be better. More than seven in ten rate their employer positively for retaining and progressing female talent.

However, on closer inspection, there is a definite gap between women’s overall impressions and the reality on the ground. Over a third of women (36%) have experienced prejudice or discrimination because of their gender, with inappropriate comments or behaviour from male colleagues the most common form (58%). A third also say they have been passed over for promotion because of their gender. Only half of women believe their employer values men and women equally in mid-level roles, dropping to 30% in senior roles and 23% at board level, signalling the challenges women face the higher they climb the corporate ladder.

This paradox held true throughout a number of sectors. Even those that were rated highly by women, such as accountancy, were still plagued by more negative issues such as discrimination. Although 94% of female accountants indicated their employer is supportive of women, women in this sector are also the least likely to say that men and women are valued equally at top levels, suggesting many firms fall short on equality at senior management or board level.

Similarly, a paradox can also be found in advertising, an industry many people would view as a good working environment for women due to the high numbers of women at entry level. Despite high employer support scores, advertising was rated poorly for progressing female talent and a majority have faced prejudice and discrimination (51%).

There are similar contradictions in place for working mothers: although a large majority (71%) said their employer is supportive, 37% said being a working mother has hindered their career. Nearly half (44%) of these said they are unable to work the long hours required of them due to being a mother and 43% say they are seen as less committed by their peers. A third of women said being a working mother has led them to experience prejudice and discrimination.

So why does this disconnect between theory and reality exist, and what can be done to combat it?

Through our experience of coaching professional women, we’ve identified several reasons that women might report positive working conditions despite experiencing a number of barriers to their career due to their gender. Many will feel anxious – either consciously or unconsciously – about highlighting negative aspects of their job to senior management for fear of how they will be received. Upsetting those in charge (usually a senior male power base) is often viewed as more detrimental to a career than helpful, and some will feel it is easier to toe the line rather than flag up potentially unpopular opinions.

Combatting this requires employers to promote a culture of transparency in which staff should feel able to voice their concerns over barriers to their careers without fearing a negative backlash. Employees who observe poor behaviour – either male or female – should also be encouraged to report this to the relevant people to implement change from the ground level up, as well as being promoted by senior management.

Ensuring that positive policies towards working women are filtered and implemented throughout all levels of an organisation is crucial in allowing a culture change to succeed. This is where coaching of working women, and their line managers, has proved invaluable.

The skills that we’ve seen derive from coaching tally very strongly with those women cite as important to their career progression, typically those relating to confidence and how they assert themselves rather than the skills to do the job. This gives women the confidence and support to make things work, whatever their circumstances or the policies in place at their organisation.

Making improvements at a personal level also allows for a healthier talent pipeline: those who receive coaching and use these skills to further their careers will also be helping to form part of a more diverse group of role models for younger female staff further down the pipeline.

The involvement of more senior staff in the coaching process is also hugely beneficial in that it not only helps key decision makers to see the value of supporting and progressing female talent, but also gives them the confidence and ability to follow these changes through and make a real positive impact within their workplace.

The career paradox for women in the UK demonstrates that currently, working cultures do not unilaterally allow women to thrive and for too many the opposite is still true. A complete culture change is a long-term goal, but one that the UK needs to work harder towards if we are to fully support and progress our female talent. In today’s competitive economy, this is something we can ill afford to neglect if we are to compete on an international level.

Chris Martin, Marketing Director, Talking Talent.