Boosting women’s economic empowerment

A focus group of mums last week addressed some of the issues holding back economic empowerment for women.

team of women working chaired a focus group last week, hosted by the Government Equalities Office. The GEO is holding a series of focus groups up and down the country to gauge women’s views on what economic empowerment means to them.

The four women taking part in the session led by Gillian Nissim, founder of, came from different backgrounds and had different perspectives on the issue.

The first mum had two young children. She lost her HR job in the hotel and catering industry and spoke about her employer’s lack of empathy with regard to her pregnancy and a personal bereavement. She is looking for a part-time job, but is finding it difficult to find any part-time HR roles. Her partner works long, irregular hours and she needs to be around for her children. She feels mums should be given equal opportunities whether they want to work full time or part time.

The second mother had been working in the male-dominated gaming industry. She spoke about unconscious bias and discrimination, on missing out on promotions and being passed over in favour of male colleagues, of missing out on networking in the evenings after she had her daughter and having her ideas ignored only to find them taken up later when someone else suggested them. She took redundancy and qualified as a coach. She now works with a lot of women. She feels women need a more supportive work environment which recognises their needs and the huge amount of unpaid work they do. She says that unpaid care work that happens at home should be monetised and be part of GDP and that women’s voices need to be heard more.

The third mum was a single parent. After her son was born, she worked full time in HR – 50 hours a week with lots of travel. It got to the point when it was too much. She took another role with some homeworking which was easier, but her son wanted her to be round more when her son started school. She made the decision to leave her career and find a job closer to home, working term time only in school administration. The job was not at all challenging. She was then able to find another HR job through her mother and negotiated term time hours, overtime for when she does some work in the summer holidays and the ability to retain the cv business she had built up on the side. She could both use her skills and be around for her son and he became more engaged at school.

She thinks that having her own business and knowing the managing director of her current employer before she took the job gave her the confidence to set her own terms and she feels she is more committed to her work because of its flexibility. She also feels that she should not have had to spend so much of her working life away from her son before finding a role that allowed her to do a job that used her skills and have a good family life.

The fourth mum was a senior manager in a public sector organisation. She was promoted after her first child was born, but then had another child who didn’t sleep well and found that she was exhausted and that it was impossible to do everything.

She reduced to three days a week, but the pressure was intense. She handed in her resignation after she found herself writing an urgent report while her son was ill in A & E. She then did consultancy work. She took a month off to settle her son into school a few years ago. She hasn’t worked since and is very angry that she had to choose between family life and a career. She feels she was sold a myth that she could have it all, but says the reality was that it was just too hard. She would like to go back to work now, but to something more junior and with less responsibility and fewer hours, but she has no idea how to get to where she wants to be, to something more balanced.

Her partner works long hours and they have fallen into traditional gender roles where their roles are very different. She feels there needs to be more support for women at pinch points when things get difficult. She thinks it should be a requirement that primary caregivers should get mentoring to recognise how much they often have on their plate. And she would like to see more support for returners who are looking to get back to work.

Career breaks

Some of the general themes covered by the focus group included the impact on confidence of taking a career break and the difficulty of getting back to something approaching what mums did before but on reduced hours. Participants said career breaks needed to be normalised and considered a reasonable choice. Currently, taking a career break was like “falling off a cliff edge” and, despite a few returner initiatives, it was generally very hard to get back onto a career pathway. Women felt the need to start all over again. There was a need for more realistic role models and a realisation that career breaks and being at home had a long term impact on income and savings making pensions and made women more dependent.


The discussion also touched on childcare costs and availability, especially if you have more than one child. Childcare was a particular issue for those without extended family around and with partners who work long or irregular hours. The cost of childcare and the impact on women’s ability to contribute to their children’s lives and well being made it difficult to justify going back to work despite the fact that many women were very bored being at home and not using their skills.

Women were worried about their children’s well being. They didn’t want someone else to bring up their child. They wanted to have enough time to properly parent their children. However, one mum said those who stayed at home were often living through their children’s successes, prioritising their children and partners and sacrificing their own dreams. She said she felt let down because she had been brought up to ‘have it all’ and it had exhausted her.

There was a discussion about the pressure on women to be ‘superwoman’, with women feeling the need to push themselves for all sorts of reasons, including to justify being a single parent. Several women spoke of being forced to choose between career or family. They wanted to be able to do both.

Sharing the caring

Shared parenting was another central theme of the focus group discussion. If it was easier for men and women to get flexible working and to share parental leave, the mums felt it would take some of the pressure off women or at least give parents greater choice over how they organised their lives. Traditional roles of mums being the main caregiver and men being the main earner put a lot of different pressures on both partners. The breadwinner role made it harder for dads to take leave or change jobs.

There was a proposal that schools should discuss the whole issue of shared parenting so young people could envisage what it might look like in advance and challenge gender stereotypes. Girls and boys both needed to discuss how family and work life would fit together and how they could share responsibilities.

Rethinking work

Participants also discussed how work needed to change and be unpacked so full time work did not mean working all the time. Work needed to be more goals-oriented and based on output rather than hours.

Another theme that emerged was the importance of unpaid care work being valued more.

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