Does women’s conscientiousness contribute to the gender pay gap?

Working Women, women at work


After coaching so many women who have become mothers, I have often assumed that the biggest cause of the gender pay gap is when women come back from maternity leave.  It’s easy to see, where a large part of pay is bonus, how discretionary pay could be downgraded.

This has certainly been an issue occasionally for the bankers that we coach where some maternity returners have received a lower bonus during their first year back and are then pegged at that bonus level ever after, but what about the vast majority of women not on a bonus scheme?

For these women, the issue is quite different.

On return from maternity leave, women have a tendency to opt out or are eased out of accelerator roles. These are the jobs that lead to promotion and typically involve customer-facing responsibilities, have a sizeable P&L attached to them or involve leading a large team.

The problem is that these are jobs that are not deemed conducive to any form of flexible working.

I’ve coached many women who judge that they will not be able to achieve the right work/life balance unless they forfeit such front-line positions. Instead, they switch sideways to roles that don’t carry as much responsibility, lest they fail.

It’s unfortunate that women do experience a dip in confidence when they come back from having a baby. When they try to envisage doing their old job again now that they have a less elastic day, they just can’t square the circle, and so they shift sideways to buy themselves some flexibility.

In a way, their conscientiousness is an overdone strength.

I often wonder if men were the primary care leavers would they agree to a lateral move or would they be more bullish about it and have a go at making it work? After all, we know many men apply for jobs without being fully qualified for them, whereas many women have to be 100% sure they meet all the criteria before applying.

We need to be encouraging women to change their approach rather than change their job.

We can help them recognise that their contributions are not solely measured in hours at the desk, but indeed that they have leadership skills that are actually enhanced by having become a mother.

Delegation, decisiveness, efficiency and perspective are just a few that come to mind. It’s precisely these skills that make for better leaders and we need a few more of them these days!

I know I’ve gone along with my returning mother coachees who are keen to negotiate flexible work opportunities in the past, but in future, I will be challenging my maternity returners a bit harder when they opt to take a less demanding role.

Of course, we can encourage women to a change in perspective, but it won’t make a jot of difference unless their managers also appreciate that work is something you do and not just somewhere you go to!

It’s for this reason we insist, when carrying out Parental Transition coaching in organisations, that we also coach the manager.

Some of these coaching sessions can have the biggest impact by encouraging managers to coax their star performers looking to move sideways to just give the bigger job a go. After all you only become competent at a job by actually doing it.

*Geraldine Gallacher is Managing Director of The Executive Coaching Consultancy and can be reached at [email protected]. This article was first published on the Executive Coaching newsletter.

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