Rethinking the choices women face in corporate careers

Woman in boardroom


The Cranfield School of Management released its 2018 Female FTSE board report last week, showing a flatlining or decline in the number of women in executive roles in FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies. So the debate around the lack of women’s progress into top jobs continues. A persistent challenge is the shortage of women in the talent pipeline – which the Chartered Management Institute has called the ‘Missing Middle’.

Reasons for the lack of progress are of course complex, but three of the biggest contributory factors are:

  • The difficulties working mothers face in managing any semblance of work-life balance – particularly as they progress their careers. Survey after survey confirms mothers tend to hold themselves back from promotion as a result.
  • Outdated ‘man-made’ corporate cultures with embedded working practices that create very real career barriers for women. In many organisations reduced hours are only considered possible in lower level roles. Flexible working is often seen as an inconvenience to manager and team; or at best a grudging concession.
  • Perhaps the most pernicious factor of all is the illusion of choice that pushes women into costly and career-limiting decisions.

Unlike previous generations the majority of women now opt to return to work very quickly after having children. It’s at this point they are likely to discover their employer’s culture is not set up to support them. Working practices and career paths continue to be based on the outmoded notion of the ‘ideal worker’ – committed one hundred and ten percent to the job and unencumbered by outside responsibilities.

At first glance it appears the working mother has choices – although each comes with a compromise.

She can opt to reduce her hours or ask for a flexible arrangement. Where this is agreed it’s likely to be at the cost of career progression; and in some cases she may even be asked to step back into a more junior role.

She can move herself from the career track onto the ‘mommy track’ where working hours are more manageable. The pressures are lower, but so are the rewards.

If she believes neither of these is available to her in her current employment she can look for a flexible role elsewhere – often giving up seniority as the trade-off for flexibility.

Or she may be seduced into the growing world of ‘mumpreneurship’ where she can continue to earn a living while organising her work around her family.

I’m not knocking any of these options. For some women they will prove to be very successful alternatives. But for many they come at a cost: lost careers and lost lifetime earnings.

And while we focus on the choices working mothers apparently have, we ignore the one choice denied to many: the option to remain with their employer and continue progressing their career in a more balanced way.

Inertia and resistance to change

The proportion of flexible and reduced hours jobs at middle and senior manager level remains minute. As an expert in the re-balancing of work, I’ve become frustrated by the inertia and resistance to change in many organisations. Particularly so when the skills exist to re-design jobs for both balance and better productivity.

I’ve channelled my frustration into developing a six step process (PROPEL) that will empower working mothers to take things into their own hands and:

  • Understand why a “one size fits all” approach to work-life balance doesn’t exist; and how to address their unique requirements.
  • Identify a ‘win-win’ flexible working arrangement that meets both their needs and satisfies their employer’s expectations.
  • Re-think their assumptions about leadership by spotlighting the thinking of three leading academics whose work is re-defining the concept in ways more resonant with feminine values.

It’s all in my new book ‘Don’t discard your corporate career – #Upcycle it!’

When they pressed for practices such as part-time and term-time working, our mothers and grandmothers started the workplace revolution. The time has come to finish it by giving women real choices.

*Anna Meller is currently crowdfunding to publish her book. You can learn more and support her here.

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