Climbing the career ladder

Do women’s careers progress differently from men’s? How can traditional career advancement be rethought to keep apace with a changing workforce and its changing demands?

Career Progression


Women’s career progression tends not to follow the traditional linear male pattern and it has been argued that there needs to be a complete shift in thinking about career progression if we are to accommodate women.

Alison Maitland, co-author of Why Women Mean Business, says that companies “have to be reminded that women’s career patterns, aspirations and attitudes are different from the traditional male model. There is a very, very powerful case for why organisations need to adapt to women rather than women adapting to the organisation’s model,” she says.

She states that women are tending to have children just at the crunch time in the traditional career promotion ladder, when they would normally be looking to move into senior management. She says companies need to rethink their model of promotion and consider older people for promotion.

Freshwater fish

Collette Dunkley has seen this in her own career. A former board member of General Motors, she says she often felt “like a freshwater fish swimming in salt water because the parameters were set about work and they were parameters which were built around a male culture”.

A mother of five, she founded XandY Communications, the only UK communications agency specialising in gender communications and argues that companies need to learn to communicate differently with male and female staff so that all feel fully included.

“At General Motors,” says Dunkley, “I said to my boss when I got to the top that I would achieve all he wanted, but that he should not tell me how to do it as I would not do it in the same way as him. Men are more individualistic while women work more collaboratively and look to build relations,” she says.

So part of the argument about career progression is about rethinking traditional models of career progression. When their children are very young, women may prefer to go on a slower track for a few years and then come back with renewed vigour when their children are slightly older.

Companies need to 1) offer flexibility and understanding, particularly when their children are young and 2) be ready to offer promotion opportunities as women feel able to take off again. In terms of the latter, if women have been out of the workforce for a while or working part-time, they may need some form of confidence raising to get them to push through the glass ceiling.


Research shows lack of confidence, often reinforced by perceptions of inequality in the workplace, can be a major barrier to women returning to the workforce or pushing for senior positions.

For those who are on maternity leave, there are some innovative ways firms are implementing to boost retention, for example, through Keeping in Touch days.

These are a relatively new addition to maternity leave legislation. Under the Work and Families Act 2006, women are entitled to up to 10 keeping in touch days during their maternity, although they are not permitted to take them within two weeks of giving birth, or four weeks if they work in factories.

These are simply for maintaining contact with the office and not for working.

One of the companies which has come up with a more innovative approach to KIT days is the bank firm Citi. Its programme, run with HRI-ICAS, a leading provider of employee support, works to help post-baby women confront their dual role as mother and worker. The programme offers three group coaching sessions before, during and after maternity leave.

Before maternity leave, the group coaching session focuses on issues such as childcare, balancing career and life goals and managing the transition back to work.

The second session is held on one KIT day midway through an employee’s maternity leave. This involves a structured discussion of how their maternity leave is going and how they can reintegrate back into the team.

The women draw up an action plan which they discuss with an advisor and they swap experiences and solutions for managing some of the issues involved in going back to work.

The third group session takes place shortly after the woman returns to work and includes issues such as work-life balance, creating practical action plans and finding psychological strategies to cope with juggling a career and a baby.

Some organisations, such as Cambridge University, also offer graduated returns for women returning from maternity leave so that they, for example, begin by coming back three days a week and gradually build up to working full time.


Another hurdle to women returning to work is childcare – not just a lack of affordable childcare, but emergency back-up for inevitable crises. Many employers are looking at ways around this.

In addition to holiday playschemes, vouchers and subsidised nursery care, the Metropolitan police force, for example, offers emergency back-up childcare through selected nurseries, nannies or childminders. This is just one of the innovative ways it is looking to recruit and retain women workers.

Another is through recognising potential hurdles to the implementation of flexible working, for instance, resistance by certain middle managers. To counter this its HR team keep a regular ear open for areas where more training on flexible working might be needed.

For building women’s confidence so that they apply for senior positions, it runs a programme which aims to train women police officers to become line managers. It includes mentoring, assertiveness training, building confidence and public speaking.

The change required in our working culture applies to the way companies view those who opt to work flexibly. They need to feel that they are not just treading water and firms need to ensure they do not become sidelined, demotivated and written them off when they could be potential future leaders.

They have not given up on their careers just because they have gone part time. In fact, arguably the fact that they continue to work despite the tremendous demands on them often makes for more dedicated workers. Also the fact that they can do their job as well as another full-time one, being a mother, means they are actually gaining more skills along the way than a person in one full time role.

Skills acquired through motherhood tend to get underrated, but the organisation, patience, negotiating skills and networking required to keep all the balls in the air provide the perfect training course for future senior managers.

Not sidelined

There are many ways to ensure flexible workers are not left feeling sidelined.

is for flexible working to be offered to all employees so that it becomes part of the norm and not a ghetto for working mums
is for managers to manage flexible workers well to ensure they do not feel sidelined.

For instance, they need to set clear, realistic work goals which may be similar to those of their full time colleagues but take into account their reduced hours. they need to feel they are progressing in their career by being included in the same training opportunities as full-timers.

Women also need to take some responsibility here and look carefully at the skills gaps in their cv and investigate how these can be plugged. For instance, through courses at local colleges or, for example, an MBA at the Open University.

They may need to negotiate study time with their employer but if a strong case is made for how this will improve what they have to offer to their employer.

As technology and work culture changes, women may also feel that they can take charge of their careers to a degree that they have not been able to before.

Many mothers, for instance, are choosing to set up their own businesses often from home, work freelance as consultants or do several part-time jobs as part of a portfolio career. In fact, in 2006 Barclays predicted that more women will set up their own businesses in some major areas of industry than men by 2010.

Figures still show women entrepreneurs generally make up just a small proportion of Britain’s entrepreneurs and Government initiatives, some targeted directly at mothers, aim to overcome some of the hurdles, such as funding and confidence. Mentoring networks made up of successful entrepreneurs are one way of confronting the latter.

Emma Jones, founder of home business firm Enterprise Nation, says working parents, including couples, make up a large proportion of the people visiting her site. So much so that she has added a best couple award to her annual awards ceremony.


Leanne Leigh left a full-time job as an accountant to become a consultant in order to get more flexibility. She has two children and years of experience in accountancy, but says: “I wanted to be able to take and pick up my children from school as many days as possible.”

She now works as a consultant with Grunberg & Co Chartered Accountants, specialising in advising both established business owners and start-up entrepreneurs on their business aims. She says this allows her to be very flexible.

Sarah Jane Thomson, co-founder of advertising business Thomson Intermedia, combines both the portfolio career and entrepreneur models. When pregnant with her first child, she chose to leave her full time job as a director of market research group Mintel to set up her own company with her husband in order to spend more time with her new baby.

It turned out to be the busiest time of her life and three years down the road the couple floated the business on the Alternative Investment Market, raising £8m.

She now works in four different businesses – Thomson, IT firm Priority One IT, First News newspaper and Babylicious frozen baby food company – and finds that the four feed into each other. “They do all cross fertilise,” she says, adding that she is now more able to control her hours and pick up her children from school three days a week. “Rather than working full time in one business, I am multitasking,” she says. “I love it.”

Deep change

For many women having children represents a time of great change and profound shifts in identity which may herald a complete career change.

Recent research by the Open University showed that within the first year after a mother gives birth her identity shifts. The report, Becoming a mother for the first time in Tower Hamlets, says that their career and educational aspirations shifted, as did their enjoyment of leisure activities.

At a deeper level, their whole identities shifted and all faced some form of conflict, with different emphases for different women, between being a mother and being an individual with their own needs and desires. Alice Jones of career coaching firm A Brave New World says women too often fail to acknowledge the very deep ways that having children have changed them and their career motivations.

They need to think carefully whether they want to stay in the same career they had before they had children or whether their interests and priorities have changed. She believes careers advice which really questions what people want from life – how, for example, their careers might fit in with parenthood – at an early age and learn other skills, such as networking, that may help them in seeking promotion and career opportunities.


There is no longer a stark choice between career, a part-time job and being a full-time mother. The world is changing and along with it work patterns are undergoing a revolution.

The new Generation Y – which has a rising majority of female graduates – expects to work flexibly and to have a life as well as a career. Technology allows people to work around their other interests. In fact, research shows that remote workers are more productive than their office-based colleagues, as well as less likely to get sick and more likely to stay in the job.

The kind of skills working mothers have advanced training in, such as multi-tasking, are highly valued. Long-term demographics show that, despite the current recession, the shortage in the future will not be in jobs, but in people to fill them. It makes no sense for companies not to invest in policies which look to recruit and retain women workers.

Many of them will at some point have children and not only will they expect not to let their career skills go to waste, but employers may find that if they don’t employ them they will be setting up their own companies in direct competition.

Comments [1]

  • Juliet Nardi says:

    I think that for most women their career gets put on hold or slows down for at least some time during maternity leave. How much of a slow down or even stop depends not only on the mum but also on the employer. Many of my friends have had to rethink their career in order to achieve a level of satisfaction and challenge with the constraints of childcare and school hours. Most of my peers seem to have gone for a nanny or retrained to become teachers. I am lucky as I have family to fill the childcare gaps and a considerate and flexible employer, so I can enjoy both my working and family life.

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