Keeping women in


What do high-achieving working mums think is the crucial thing that helps them progress their careers?

It’s not so much women’s networks, mentors and forums, according to Guidant Group’s Keeping Women In research. What comes through clearly is the importance of good line managers, says Melanie Forbes, chief executive of recruitment consultancy Guidant Group.

Forbes cites Helen Hyde, one of the two women who helped launch the report who is Personnel Director at Waitrose. Her manager knew she had to get the 5.10pm bus to get to nursery in time for pick-up so if he saw one of her meetings was in danger of overrunning he tapped on the door and offered to take over and fill her in later. “It is that kind of thoughtfulness that makes a difference. People should expect thoughtfulness from their managers, but many don’t get it,” says Forbes.

The research was published several months ago, but the Group has just begun publishing a series of video chats about the findings on Youtube. Two have been published already and another two are in the pipeline.

The report, which is based on 250 interviews with working mums, came about as a result of’s Top Employers Awards ceremony a few years ago. Forbes was on the panel of speakers and was asked about quotas for women on boards. Coach Anna Rasmussen was in the audience and had worked with Forbes many years previously when she was at Manpower. The two met for a coffee soon after. Over 10 years had passed since they had worked together when Anna was a recent graduate. Both women had children.

They started talking about their careers and why they were against quotas for women on boards. Rasmussen said self help books tended to be from the women’s perspective rather than the clients. There was very little focus on the culture shift needed by organisations to help women progress their careers after having children. Forbes said she could help as Guidant had access to lots of clients. They needed to hear from high-achieving working mums about what businesses could do to enable them to flourish in the world of work.

Loving work
Forbes says she defines “high-achieving mums” as women who love their work and want to progress their careers while also being great mums. Forbes’ children are 18 and 15 while Rasmussen has an eight and five year old and a stepchild. “We were talking about how we were trying to push up the career ladder when our children were really young and how we had had fantastic support networks. I have never lived more than five miles from my parents,” said Forbes. “And my husband’s job was fairly flexible.”

Even so, she struggled. Eighteen years ago she was a regional manager at Manpower, responsible for 11 branches, and the main earner in her family. She took four months off when her daughter was born. She says she felt a huge pressure to get back in the saddle before “it was too late”. “There were very few women in higher level roles with children. When I look back it was probably a mistake to take so little time off. I learnt my lesson. I really struggled,” she says.

She went into a part-time business development role which gave her more flexibility. When she got pregnant with her son she was a part-time training executive at Manpower. The second time around she took nine months for her maternity leave.

She says her memory of how awful she felt when she went back after her first pregnancy has been the spur to her ensuring Guidant has a very open culture where women can talk about the issues they are facing when they return to work after having children. “I think about what would have made me feel better,” she says.

She found the Keeping Women In research “really humbling”. Rasmussen and her team of coaches gave up their time for free to interview women face to face. “Some of what they found reduced me to tears: women saying they were not allowed to talk about their children at work because it would limit their careers,” says Forbes. “They spoke of working practices that had stayed the same for decades before women went to work en masse, that were not fit for purpose in the modern world.”

Tick box
She says she has not herself had the awful experiences that some women in the research had come up against. She has, however, been the only women on boards or in high-level meetings, but it has never bothered her. She is passionately opposed to quotas because she says she could not look her daughter in the eye if she had got a place on a board “because I was a tick box for some man to meet his quota”. She cites Lord Davies’ 25% figure and the fact that most of it has been achieved through the appointment of non-executive directors rather than women coming up the career ladder. “Only one thing will change this and that is a cultural shift which is supported by male leaders who really want it,” she says. “Employers need to understand that if they want the best talent they need to do things differently.”

At Guidant Group, which is sponsoring the Q & A session at this year’s’s Top Employer Awards, some 62% of the senior leadership team are female. Many are mums. Forbes recognises that maternity leave can pose problems for business, but her response is that it is “a fact of life”. “Businesses have to manage that and introduce flexible ways of working,” she says. Technology has massively enabled that, she adds. When she started working in recruitment, people were tied to their desks from 8am to 6pm. Now they can work anywhere and at any time.

She herself tends to leave the office in time to be at home for dinner at 7pm. She then logs on from home in the evening for an hour. That is her choice, she says. She does not expect her employees to do extra hours on a regular basis or, for instance, work while they are on holiday, as she says this is unsustainable, but if it works for them and the business to flex their hours then she is all for it. “It’s all about creating a culture of trust,” she says.

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