Female leaders suffer “maternity penalty”

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Unconscious bias leads organisations to discriminate, says report

A key reason for the lack of women at the top of corporations is that they are penalised for prioritising childcare duties over work, according to a report by Mercer.

The study revealed European data showing that only 29 per cent of senior managers across the continent are female, with the UK close to the average at 28 per cent. Mercer’s figures consider a wider senior population than FTSE boardrooms, where only 15 per cent of executives are women.

Sophie Black, principal in Mercer’s executive remuneration team, described women’s representation as woeful. Although the causes are complex and cultural and social factors play a part, much of it could be attributed to unconscious bias on the part of organisations, she said.

A woman’s career receives a “maternity penalty” in the eyes of employers for prioritising childcare duties over work,” said Black. “Corporate culture plays a huge part in causing women to deselect themselves from corporate life. If the culture of a company is such that those holding senior roles are expected to act in a certain way or place work above family commitments, then women will often turn their backs on the corporate ladder.”

She said that the end result of these issues was a “pyramid of invisibility” for women in corporate life. According to Mercer’s data, Greece and Ireland had the highest proportion of female managers in western Europe with 33 per cent, followed by Sweden (30 per cent) and Belgium (29 per cent). The lowest were Italy (22 per cent) Austria (21 per cent), Germany (20 per cent) and the Netherlands (21 per cent). The last finding is particularly revealing, said Black.

“The figure for Netherlands suggests that it is very conservative, in its approach to equality in the workplace,” she said. “Actually, the reverse is true. It’s a progressive nation but, like the UK, has very high levels of women working part-time. Part-time work is a major factor determining the low number of women in senior roles and part-time workers tend to be overlooked for promotion. Cultural factors and expectations of childcare responsibilities often mean that part-time work is dominated by women so it has reduced their representation in senior roles.”

Several eastern European countries have higher female representation among senior managers – in Lithuania the figure is 44 per cent, and in Russia, 40 per cent. Nevertheless, these countries still have a notable gender pay gap.

“Equality is a legacy from Soviet times with cultural and political life encouraging women to perform an equal role in society and the economy, so women were well represented,” Ms Black pointed out.
“However, on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc came the market forces and this is resulting in a steady erosion of equality which is causing the gender pay gap to widen.”

Quota systems to increase women’s representation in business have been in existence for several years in countries like Spain, Norway, France, Belgium and Italy. In the UK, the government is taking steps to improve women’s representation in the boardroom following Lord Davies” report “Women on Boards” which recommended that FTSE companies pursue a target of 25 per cent women on their boards.

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3 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. I’m anticipating a hostile ride for my view, but I’ll give it anyway: women who choose to take time out from their career to raise children really shouldn’t expect to have their cake and eat it.

    Employees, particularly managers, are (or should be) rewarded for competence, commitment and results. Companies who have to choose between someone who takes a career-break sometimes lasting years and then returns expecting to leave work at 5 prompt every day to pick up little Johnny, and an equally competent colleague (male or female) who has put heart and soul into the organisation, can be forgiven for choosing the latter for promotion.

    A commercial company is not a social charity: it is entitled to, indeed required to, make its decisions in the best interests of its owners. So, statistically, more of the ‘heart-and-soul’ types are likely to rise to the top echelons. As the social norm is still for women to be the child-rearer, it means fewer women than men are going to make it to the top.

    I am not denying that some organisations and cultures put up unfair obstacles to the advancement of female employees. However, please let’s not pretend that a lower proportion of women in the senior posts automatically means discrimination is rife.

  2. this is logically spot on – however I coach many men and women in companies where that level of 24hour committment (well that’s what it feels like to them) is the expected norm and they respond to it in order to keep their careers – but are angst ridden by the lack of family time at best, and at worst, the breakdown of family life and relationships. this can’t be healthy for society more widely.
    Perhaps what we need to do is find a way that companies can be succesful without expecting their empolyees to be there 24/7. There are a few companies that work hard to create a culture where long hours are frowned on and you are expected to be effective within a 40-50 hour week rather than 80 – 100+ hour week. but they are a very small minority. Wouldn’t it be great to get a more open discussion of this going in businesses to non-defensively open up some options to benefit everyone?
    Sarah Ackroyd Director The Centre for Mentoring & Coaching Ltd

  3. I also expect a flaming for this comment !

    Is there a conclusion to be drawn from the fact that the two countries with the most female senior managers ar probabl;y the two with the worst economic problems in Europe ?…………and apart from Italy the four with the least senior female representation probably have the least ?

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