“Mums are formidable in the workplace, we need to hire more.”
As a working Mum, the title of Melissa Jun Rowley’s blog published in the Women in Leadership section of the Guardian caught my eye.
Even a cursory glance at the media confirms that gender related issues in the workplace continue to figure prominently and are highly charged. And with good cause, as these recent examples show:
The recent study on the gender pay gap in the UK by Robert Half, which found that women earn on average £300,000 less than men over their working life, caused a huge stir. The reasons given for this disparity are varied. They include the relative shortage of female professionals who progress into those senior roles that are linked with higher salaries.
The study also highlights that many women work part-time to accommodate looking after their children. This reduces their overall level of pay.
Essentially, the findings confirm that more than four decades after the Equal Pay Act, a gender pay gap remains!
Seeking to address the gender pay disparity, The House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee has now issued a Gender Pay Gap report. This is an attempt to make Government policy in the areas that contribute to the pay gap more effective. The recommendations include a change to paternity leave and pay, to encourage fathers to spend time with their young children and to enable women to go back to work.
There are probably no great surprises here and the examples confirm what we already know: Whilst positive changes are being made, the issues around gender and talent inequality are far from resolved. The media examples also highlight a specific underlying issue. Motherhood can have a hugely negative effect on women’s careers.
It is often more difficult for mothers who want to return to work to find suitable jobs. Juggling working life and looking after children requires flexible working hours to fit around childcare and enable holiday cover. Sometimes, occupying a senior position has to be traded off for flexibility.
Although the possibility of working remotely has had a hugely positive impact on women returning to work and some employers are able to accommodate flexible working hours, the overall number of job share and part-time opportunities is still limited.
It is also sadly true that working women are less likely to be paid as well as their male colleagues with similar qualifications. Working fathers actually see an increase of around 6% to their salaries when they have children. The salaries of working mothers are shown to decrease by approximately 4% per child.
The UK firm Talking Talent have recently conducted research amongst 1,000 professional women. 37% say that having children has hindered their career. A third of the women experienced prejudice or discrimination because of being a working mother. Whilst being a Mum is arguably one of the most fulfilling careers, in the workplace working mothers can take a hit.
Mothers undoubtedly also have their own anxieties to overcome. A survey carried out by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years shows that 56% worry whether their work arrangements will be compatible and 55% were concerned about missing key events in their child’s life. An overwhelming majority said that more flexible or reduced working hours would help to alleviate this anxiety. Not to mention the feeling of guilt when leaving the children to go to work and the general anxiety linked with returning to work after a career break… For that reason – and understandably – some mothers choose to decline offers to further their career.
In our fast moving society, a career break to look after children can also make mothers seem out of touch very quickly. They may appear less employable, because they are likely to need extra training to get back up to speed.
As an employer, you will have to juggle a wealth of issues around maternity transition, flexible working and support for working parents. It’s a complex practical and legal task.
However, the Talking Talent research highlighted the worrying potential for indirect – and often unwitting – discrimination. Working mothers are often viewed as less competent. It is assumed that they are pre-occupied with family life and therefore less committed to work. The disparity arises not because mothers actually become less productive as employees but because some employers expect them to.
Undoubtedly, these attitudes are held by a small majority of employers, but still… What can we do to change them? Is it all doom and gloom for working mothers? What do we have to offer?
A study carried out by Microsoft asked 2000 women and 500 employers how their performance had changed due to motherhood. As a working mother, I very much agree with the findings.
My ability to multi-task and manage my time has definitely improved through motherhood. Between remembering the children’s kit for after-school activities, planning meals and making sure that an essential work email has been sent or that presentation is ready in time, there is little room for error. It definitely focuses the mind!
Everyone is different, and this sentiment may resonate with some mothers but not others, but I definitely want to be at work. As much as I love and miss my children, my working hours provide me with much needed stimulation and diversion. My job enables me to treat both looking after my children and being at work as quality time. I feel sure that I therefore try that little bit harder with both and that I am more, rather than less committed to my work – and of course my private life.
I am one of the lucky mothers whose employer is hugely flexible. As mentioned, technological improvements have played a big part in mothers being able to juggle their private and work life more effectively and businesses, in general, are becoming more accommodating where working mothers are concerned. This is an encouraging trend with benefits for both parties.
Some employers recognise the potential positives for their businesses when employing working mothers. More than half are saying that mothers make better team players than women who do not have children.
Employers also report that one in three women became more appreciative and tolerant of their colleagues and clients after becoming a mother. That can only be beneficial to preserving team harmony and providing excellent customer service. This in turn will impact positively on the business as a whole, even though accommodating working mothers may require a little more flexibility and imagination.
Working mothers bring very specific – and different – skill sets to the table and the financial returns of companies with a more diverse workforce have been shown to be much higher. Companies with more women at board level also perform better.
Empathy can have a positive effect on innovation. It helps with problem solving. Melissa Jun Rowley’s blog argues that the market will benefit from products and services that are designed for women by women.
She cites the achievements of MotherCoders, a technical orientation program in the US, which is designed to ensure that the huge number of unfulfilled jobs in the technology sector will land in the hands of competent, educated, and willing women who happen to be mothers.
In a small way these success stories and recent research might help to change hearts and minds. Working Mums are clearly a force to be reckoned with and they can bring highly beneficial skills to businesses. It may also inspire other women to pursue their path and to realise that there can be a way to juggle having children and furthering their careers. Even though, it may not always be plain sailing.
But there seems to be an underlying ripple to this discussion. Whilst gender disparity remains a potent issue, isn’t it essentially important to find the right person for the job irrespective of their background?
Is the emphasis on gender disparity ultimately helpful?
The Girls’ Lounge at the World Economic Forum 2016 is spearheading an important debate about the lack of women at the heart of the business world. During a session in Davos, the fundamental question arose whether a word other than ‘gender’ should be used to discuss workplace equality.
The forum agreed that the emphasis should be placed on talent rather than gender. ‘Talent equality’ emerged as the preferred term. The need for a more neutral choice of language was identified as one way to change the overall narrative. A less loaded vernacular and more positivity was needed.
So, whilst working mothers are still faced with constant struggles, improvements are happening and attitudes are changing. After all, research shows that employing working mothers could have a hugely positive effect on your business. Celebrating achievements and the positive impact that working women have on business may go some way to changing hearts and minds.
What do you think? Will an overall shift of focus from gender to talent help to redefine the gender narrative? This is a highly emotive subject and we would love to hear your experiences as a working mother or an employer.