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25,000 people, men and women took part in the Project 28-40 survey on women at work run by Opportunity Now and PwC. Here are the key findings:

If you are serious about change, CEOs and senior leaders need to take the lead on women’s progression, moving this from a diversity initiative to a core business priority. Set aspirational targets for the numbers of women you want to see at each senior level in your organisation.

Prioritise the development of excellent managers at every level of your organisation.

Create a truly agile organisation, with women and men able to work in a way that makes them productive and engaged. Look at job design, technology, agile teams, and defeat the flexible working stigma that holds women back. Allow for non linear careers – your top talent will have times in their lives they need to take a step back.

Recognise that harassment and bullying still occurs, despite well-meaning policies. Call it out, deal with perpetuators, and make it simple and straightforward to report.

28 – 40 women: Build your network – be in a position to know about opportunities as they come up. Get real on sponsorship – identify senior people who will advocate for you. If you want a mentor, ask them.

Key Findings

  1. This report is a reality check for UK employers – there is a gap between organisational policies and the actual experiences of women at work, particularly women aged 28-40, including real challenges around bullying and harassment.
  2. Women want excellent line management and expect the basics at work – this is far more important than creating more female-only programmes.
  1. There is plenty of good news – women are ambitious, confident, and are actively seeking opportunities to advance their careers. Companies are also trying hard, but their efforts are often off-target.
  2. Not all women are the same. It is important for employers to recognise several phases and different evolutions of women’s careers and ambitions as well as to recognise that women of different backgrounds and identities may face particular challenges.
  1. Flexible working is essential to women in balancing their many and varied commitments, yet the stigma attached can be an obstacle to progression. If companies get this right employee engagement and productivity can be enhanced – for everyone.
  1. Women returners – an opportunity for employers. Many mothers feel their employer is not doing enough to back them up in balancing their responsibilities at work and home – they want to work hard, but want to be measured for outputs, not hours worked. Before they have children women are nervous about the impact of parenthood on their career. Role models and honest conversations with managers can help.
  1. The lives of senior executives appear unappealing – despite women’s ambition, their perception of lifestyle at the top is putting them off. We need senior women and men to speak about what they enjoy about their jobs, and how they make it work.
  1. A perceptions gap between women and men is creating an obstacle to solving the gender imbalance. Women see unfairness in pay and in access to career progression opportunities and feel that their organisational culture is male-dominated. Men do not recognise these barriers. When men, who hold the majority of senior leadership positions, can start to see the challenges women face, we will make progress.
  1. Whilst the emphasis is on employers to change, women can contribute to creating their own opportunities by speaking up and strategically planning their careers.

Project 28-40 is about making work better for everyone – our survey found that many workplace priorities are shared by women and men. This is a chance to radically reassess and  create modern working practices and more highly engaged employees.

Kathryn Nawrockyi, Director of Opportunity Now, said: “The report shows that women are just as confident, able and ambitious as men, while sharing similar priorities in work and life. Frustratingly, they are still not receiving enough support from their employers to achieve their ambitions.”

Gaenor Bagley, Head of People at PwC and a member of the Opportunity Now advisory board, commented: “More UK women than ever may be working, but our research shows that the workplace isn’t working for women. Too often there is a disconnect between organisations’ policies and the actual experience of women at work. For example, despite the perception that flexible working helps women, it could actually be holding them back in many cases. While the decision to go part-time is often made for short-term reasons, it seems to have a wider, long-term negative impact.

“We know women are confident and ambitious, but they have different goals to men. Until these goals are recognised as different, but valued equally with male priorities, workplaces will continue to disappoint and disillusion all but the most tenacious of women. To make real progress in supporting women’s careers, we need workplaces and a society that value women’s differences and support these aims. This means getting the basics, such as how people are assessed and rewarded at work, right.”

Download the complete report:  Project 28-40