Women at work – still haven’t found what we’re looking for?

Flexible-Working-logo-rgb-300dpiI attended a  seminar this week on the eternally vexed  subject of women  at work.  Why is it still the case that, as the  report which sparked the seminar claimed:

“a third of working women feel disadvantaged in the workplace”

There will be more reflective blog posts on this later.  But for starters here’s a summary.

Our own worst enemies?

The event was hosted by recruitment consultancy Badenoch & Clark, so I quizzed a passing  consultant about something I heard  recently from a head hunter who claimed that women could be reluctant to push themselves forward and were too quick to share the credit for success with their teams rather than taking it for themselves.  Mr B&C agreed that it often took longer to persuade women to pursue new opportunities than men – we seem  more reluctant to move out of our professional comfort zones.  We seem to believe that:

  • promoting ourselves is just bragging and isn’t the done thing,
  • if we just carry on being really good at our jobs someone will eventually discover us, and
  • unless we meet absolutely every criteria set out in the spec we won’t be considered.

Men, it seems, are much more willing to take a punt and see what happens.   It’s taken me a while to realise this is how the world works.  I will steel myself to be less wet  (although there was also a spirited discussion about whether the macho, superman school of leadership is out of date and a more inclusive,  sharing style proves more productive.  But I digress.)

The time of peril 

But it’s not just us.  Sarah Jackson of Working Families identified the three biggest risks to progression  in a woman’s career.  Pregnancy  (the Victorians called it “the time of peril” which still seems apt), taking time out and  flexible working.

The  number of women who lose their jobs while they are on maternity leave is horrendous (one estimate suggests 60,000 women lose their job each year ). The website pregnant then screwed is collecting stories of pregnancy discrimination in UK workplaces and it is sobering reading).  While women are at home on maternity leave they risk being sidelined at work and when they come back it can often be to a downsized, re-jigged role, on a lower rung of the career ladder than the one they left.

Flexible working – a mixed blessing?

Contracts to work flexibly are the holy grail for most working women ( I know that flexible working and childcare aren’t just  women’s issues, but that’s a different post, and there’s already a risk that this one will never end…)

The problem is that very few roles are advertised as suitable for flexible working – a recent Timewise study found that just over 6% of roles — and only 2% of roles with a salary over £60k – mentioned flexible working. People often feel awkward about asking for a flexible contract, fearing that they will seem less than committed to the job, and the evidence is that women who do get a flexible contract often find that they have down-shifted to less senior roles, losing pay and potential career progression  in exchange for more control over their hours (and that well-meaning colleagues can give them less demanding projects to work on, reducing still further their chances to shine.)

So, what’s to be done?

Suggestions for changing the approach of employers  came thick and fast. Here are some (not all of them  problem-free for employers, especially SMEs, but the principles are important):

  • employers should “lay out the welcome mat” for flexible working, moving to an assumption of flexible by default. Working Families’ happy to talk flexible working strapline for use on recruitment ads is a simple way of helping applicants know they can raise the issue without fear of looking half-hearted about work.
  • career progression should be a priority for everyone, organisations should support all of their staff to progress and leaders should be prepared to be role models, making it clear that they too work flexibly.

There was a bit of a discussion about unconscious bias – the way we all tend to favour other people who are similar to ourselves ,  so male-dominated senior teams tend to self-perpetuate. I think there’s an unanswerable argument for quotas to  deal with this, and I want to write about that some other time.  In the meantime,  there was a simple suggestion to let successful women mentor younger men coming up through an organisation  in an attempt to head off some of the bias before it becomes entrenched.  And I loved the sound of this – Textio, a new tool that can analyse the language of a job ad and predict how well it will do the job of attracting the right candidates – including highlighting any lurking gender bias.



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