Ian Symes: Why are ‘motherhood penalties’ still stalling women’s careers?

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In a recent report from Mumsnet it was revealed that six out of 10 women feel having children has had a negative effect on their career. The research also found that nine out of 10 women agreed that there exists a ‘motherhood penalty’ which stalls women’s careers. These numbers make for disappointing reading to anyone who wants an enthusiastic female workforce.

And why is this still the case? Numerous organisations and industry bodies have taken action to help women feel empowered in their roles, yet progression towards breaking down the barriers that they are facing in their careers remains frustratingly slow. In the Human Age, where talent will be the main factor to long term success, businesses must move faster to sort this out. After all, this is more than just an HR issue, it has become a real driver of business performance.

As global career advisers, we are passionate about helping organisations to create a culture of proactive career management. We understand that careers are a journey that individuals embark on to broaden their skill sets and increase their capabilities. This is why we recently conducted research, ‘When Women Lead, Businesses Do Better’ to better understand what is holding women back in established organisations.

Working mums are facing barriers to career progression

Our findings bear similarities to those of Mumsnet; women are recognising that having children will bring particular pressures on their working life and career prospects. Many of those we spoke to also said success in established organisations required a level of sacrificing family responsibilities that many weren’t willing to make. One of our respondents even 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” – a mind frame that needs to change

Organisations can be fully aware of these anxieties, but struggle with the best way to address them. Many companies we work with, rightly, understand the value of coaching as a development tool for women in terms of helping them to deeply consider their careers. However, it only works if approached in the right way. Introducing coaching – particularly to an employee concerned about their status in the company – can make it seem like there is a problem to fix, or that their position has come under review. It’s not the women that organisations need to fix – far from it – and companies can’t be shy about making this crystal clear.

Cultural norms do not change overnight but when the effort is made, the benefits come in much more rapidly. In the meantime, coaching can provide a safe, confidential sounding board for women, particularly when returning from maternity leave and/or other critical career points. For working mums, it can help them to manage expectations and workloads, while also giving them a permission to discuss fulfilling career ambitions. Having a family does not make you a second-class employee, nor take away desire to advance professionally. We hear from women on numerous occasions about their anxieties around successfully balancing young children with work. Almost all experienced degrees of guilt and concern, but coaching helps remind them of their strengths and gives them clear direction in their roles.

Our study also revealed the lessons that can be taken from women-owned businesses. These organisations are a great example of women leading companies, while also balancing family responsibilities. Established organisations can look to them to learn how to build firms that possess a collaborative working culture where women feel they are valued and are taken seriously.

Women need more ‘real models’ not just ‘role models’

One solution to eradicating the ‘motherhood penalty’ is to embrace the notion of ‘real models’ – women in an organisation with whom other women can relate to and share experience with. While there are plenty of ‘role models’ – women who’ve made it to the top and are excelling there – a lack of prominent women at middle management level means that when women reach a certain level of promotion, support and motivation can dry up.

A mix of ‘role models’ to aspire to and ‘real models’ to relate to is the ideal combination. These should be identified at every level of the organisation and should encourage women to be open about the challenges they have overcome and the support they received to do so.

Organisations that provide access to ‘real models’ – particularly those who are interested in having brave, creative conversations about ambitions, goals and career development – will also appeal more to the next generation of workers, particularly as the ‘job-for-life’ model that dominated old working structures has been replaced by a ‘career-for-me’.

Employers need to do more to help women balance work and home life

It also goes without saying that assembling a flexible workplace will help women to work in ways and at times that suit them, and where productivity is valued above ‘presenteeism’. After all, women are likely to be more productive if they are able to work reduced hours, or to work remotely. Having these choices makes them feel in charge of their careers and trusted, which in turn contributes to the engagement and motivation of workers. Most forward-thinking employers will have flexible working policies in place but these need to be reviewed on a regular basis to check whether they are practical and applicable and whether there are any factors that could hinder uptake.

In the women-owned business environments, technology and alternative ways of working are more common, meaning that flexibility becomes the norm. Technology can be a big help to employees working at different times and in different places. It also promotes the notion that staff should be measured by their performance outputs, not whether they are sat at their desks or not.

What next?

There is no ‘quick-fix’ to the various barriers that prevent many women from achieving their full potential, but if businesses are serious about change they need to make a serious commitment to breaking with longstanding brasses. Open and honest conversations around barriers, better ways of working and career aspirations will not only help put working mums at ease, but also, make the business itself a better place for all workers.

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About Ian Symes

Ian Symes joined Right Management in November 2012 as the new General Manager for the UK & Ireland. Ian has more than 20 year’s business experience in senior executive roles, most recently as Marketing Director for Cisco in the UK & Ireland and for the company’s high profile sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

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