Shaking the snow globe: how to reduce career obstacles for working mums

Research out this week suggests that there has been little progress in getting men to understand the barriers to progress faced by working mums.

Research out this week suggests that there has been little progress in getting men to understand the barriers to career progress faced by working mums.

The research by women in business group Opportunity Now shows 82% of women saw the fact that they have to balance work and family life as a barrier to career progression, compared to only 54% of men. Some 57% of women said they were seen as less committed to work because of family commitments, compared to 20% of men. The research also showed that lack of senior or visibly successful female role models were recognised as a barrier to progression by 52% of women and only 26% of men and 49% of women thought stereotyping and preconceptions about women’s roles and responsibilities held them back, compared to only 14% of men.

It follows up on similar research completed five years ago and shows there has been little change. Helen Wells, Acting Director & Head of Communications at Opportunity Now, says there has been “some brilliant progress in some organisations” and women have climbed up the career ladder, but adds that part of the problem is the inability of many in the workplace, particularly men, who are more likely to be in senior positions [only 12% of FTSE 100 companies have a woman on the board], to see the obstacles that are there.

“Until we get to a position where men and women are aware of the problem, which has to be done through education, we cannot overcome it,” she said. “People need to understand that they bring their own perceptions to the workplace and that people experience the workplace differently.”

She is broadly optimistic that things will change, although she notes that in some organisations things have got worse. She thinks that is because the number of working mums has increased in the last five years as have the hours they are working so there are more of them coming up against barriers, but she believes this will provide an impetus for change in the long term.

She cites changing demographics, which demonstrate the need to keep women – and their skills and experience – in the workplace, increasing use of agile working by all employees, the expectations of Generation Y about new ways of working and the growing focus on dads at work as examples of why there is optimism for the long term, even if the current economic situation might not present the most hopeful short-term outlook.

She says flexible working has been seen by non-progressive organisations as solely an employee benefit and “a bit of an irritation”. “Organisations who see they can save money by being more flexible and competitive will be better at embedding it across the organisation,” says Helen. “There are very clear business reasons for adopting agile working, such as saving money on office costs and empowering staff to be more productive.”

She hopes that Government proposals to extend the right to request flexible working will ensure it is not seen as a silo for working mums, but says it requires a cultural shift. “The more people who work flexibly, the less it will be seen as being all about mothers,” she says. “In any event, many people already work flexibly, although they might not always say that they do. Board members, for instance, tend to work flexibly.”

The research includes key recommendations on areas like agile working, but also on the need to address unconscious bias against women. This can be done, says Helen, through clear leadership from the top about the importance to business of having a diverse organisation and promoting career progression for all. It can be advantageous if a board member, particularly a male one, talks about flexible working being good for business. “It is important that there are visible senior women promoting it too and providing good role models, but if it is only associated with women it can prevent the kind of cultural change that is needed for it to be mainstreamed,” she says.

She also emphasises the importance of senior leaders engaging with staff and listening to what they have to say, for instance, through sitting in on women’s network meetings. “Unless they have that open dialogue they cannot address the issues people in their organisation are facing or give women a voice,” she says.

She adds that mentoring can become a useful mutual tool for understanding. Not only does the woman being mentored get advice on career progression, but her mentor learns from the one to one relationship more about the obstacles she might face, such as difficulties balancing work and family life. “It allows you to walk in someone else’s shoes,” says Helen.

Despite the economic situation and threats in particular to women’s jobs given cuts to the public sector, Helen believes the future is good for working mums. She cites the review into women on boards, the work many organisations are doing looking at the future of work and the need to think post recession and also longer-term cultural changes. “I read an interesting article about the lightbulb moment for many senior male managers about the difficulties working mums face coming when their daughters were facing them. That kind of cultural shift can only increase,” she says.

She adds: “Now is a brilliant time to push for change and shake the snow globe to create workplaces that work for both men and women.”

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