What is holding women back at work?

What is holding women back from rising to the top of their professions? Is it lack of assertion or self confidence? Lack of flexible working? Unconscious bias? Or a combination of many factors? And how does this impact on the gender pay gap?

As organisations around the world celebrate International Women’s Day, two reports look at some of the issues holding women back and some potential solutions.

Women’s careers: what hinders? what helps?, written by Gill Amos and published by 10Eighty.co.uk is based on in-depth interviews with 21 women from a spread of different sized organisations, including some women who are self employed, across a range of sectors from IT and retail to health and energy. Many have worked across several sectors during the course of their career. Their ages ranged from 28 to 65.

It says that what helps women’s careers is being able to take advantage of early career experiences and opportunities and having informal support from friends and family. Also of help are formal and informal networks at work and using them from an early career stage, mentoring, coaching and development programmes, a supportive line manager, a supportive partner, the ability to self-promote and to use career disruption from events such as redundancy or childbirth advantageously. Most of the women questioned were in careers which had changed from those they started out in so had been able to adapt to change well. Several had taken sidesteps or temporary downsteps in their careers to stay in the game, most frequently going freelance to get greater flexibility, often for childcare reasons. Another factor cited by some of the respondents was the ability to work from home so they could fit in family and work responsibilities more easily.

Personal factors that influenced women’s ability to get ahead included drive and determination, resilience, adaptability, an ability to learn, confidence and a willingness to take career risks.

The report also looked at what hindered women’s career progression. Number one was children, childcare and career breaks which were mentioned by more than a third of respondents. Also mentioned were male behaviour, including conscious and unconscious bias, a lack of good role models, poor managers of both genders and funding for those running small businesses. Women also felt they held themselves back, mainly due to lack of self-confidence and self-esteem.

Career decisions tended to be based on different things according to the women’s life stages, for instance, at some stages money was more important, at others location – being nearer home – or flexible working were more prominent.

The report says individuals can further their careers by being clear about their values and what they are looking for, learning to negotiate effectively, building support both inside and outside of work and developing their face to face and online reputation. The report suggests mutual support is important, for instance, mentoring others and regularly reviewing goals as well as taking advantage of the ability to move up and around easily in the earlier stages of a career.

For organisations, the report recommends promoting good, diverse role models, sharing stories about how diversity benefits the organisation, getting senior leadership buy-in, encouraging formal and informal networks, addressing unconscious bias and engaging both men and women in diversity discussions.

Specifically in the area of recruitment, the report recommends reviewing and monitoring responses to adverts, checking the images used in promotional material, monitoring age responses to adverts to see if age bias may mean women returners are being excluded, review whether those without a linear career trajectory are being disadvantaged and taking into account that women may undersell themselves at times.

In terms of actual support, it says flexible working, learning opportunities, coaching, mentoring and career management tools and resources can all help women to progress their careers.

The report states: “It is an economic and social imperative that we use our female talent more effectively. Men can play a key role in this, as it is not solely a women’s issue and it should, more realistically, be seen as a business, economic and social issue which men can impact for good. Most men would not want to see their daughters disadvantaged in their career, either in terms of prospects or pay, so it is fitting that men play their part in addressing issues of diversity.”

Asking for a pay rise
Another report by Randstad, UK working women and pay rises, looks at the allied issue of women and pay rises. Based on a survey of 2,000 UK workers it shows that fewer women have asked for a pay rise than men over the past three years, and that they are far less likely to ask for a pay rise than their male counterparts, the main reason being fear of rejection. The report says women are more likely to perceive there is a gender pay gap than men, although perceptions about pay vary across industries. Women in London are more likely to ask for a pay rise than those in other areas of the country. Fear of rejection is the key reason women give for not asking for a pay rise, but it also holds men back.

The report says employer attitude is the main issue holding back women from asking for a pay rise, but it is closely followed by lack of confidence, lack of belief in skills and fear of perception by colleagues and senior management.

Natalie Reynolds, founder of Advantage Spring and a leading negotiation expert who delivers keynote speeches to women, says women are just as capable in business, but have to work harder to crush negative stereotypes. However she says women can succeed. She advises: “Your boss isn’t a mind reader, you have got to ask. Imagine you’re negotiating for someone else – evidence shows women fight harder for people they care about. Do your research and establish your walk away point and be really clear about what you want. Have a target in mind – open ambitiously but creatively, give yourself some wiggle room. Try and make the first proposal, you’re statistically more likely to get a result that goes in your favour. Finally, be flexible, plan where you go next and what you will concede on.”

Some solutions from women in business
Meanwhile, another report from employee engagement specialists Best Companies, entitled Closing the gender gap: how to retain senior women in business, talks to women business leaders about potential solutions. It advises that companies should be more aware of the fact that women are less likely to be self-promoting or ask for a pay rise and are more self-deprecating in applications.

Kate Gaskin, currently the director and founder of Right Angle Events, says: “I don’t believe we should have quotas, positive discrimination or female-only sections, but we can encourage application, look for rising stars and dangle things in front of them.”

The report also recommends that companies do not automatically look externally for senior roles and do more to promote career mapping and progression internally. Hayley Smith, founder of Boxed Out PR, says: “Career mapping from an employer can add value and loyalty, and create equal opportunities. Mapping can remove the chances that women will not be aware of opportunities suited to them.”

The report adds that having mentors at all levels is important as is getting senior women to act at role models at events such as recruitment fairs.

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