A persistent lack of senior flexible jobs is forcing mothers, who still assume the bulk of childcare duties, into lower paid, part-time work.
The findings of a report by the Fawcett Society is not news to the thousands of women who find that getting back on track after time out of the corporate world can be a stressful and often unrewarding experience.
The Cost of Being Female
But while flexibility may make it easier for women to combine work and home, it has not done much to advance women's roles in the workplace or to encourage equal pay.
The Society's research also highlighted that the current flexible working legislation has failed to narrow the pay gap between men and women in the UK and urged the adoption of compulsory pay audits, recognising that many organisations quite simply have no idea whether or not they are paying fairly.
"Failing to make effective use of their skills is hurting women and damaging economies."
The Penalty of Motherhood
If being female isn't enough of a handicap for many in the workplace, being a mother can often be a double whammy. Six million women currently work part-time in the UK, most of whom are mothers.
Women's fears that having a baby will mean slipping down the career ladder are well founded, according to research published in The Economic Journal by Oxford University and the University of East Anglia. Almost half of female professionals with degrees and other qualifications who move into part-time roles often end up in lower skilled jobs and find themselves working with colleagues who do not have A-levels.
A third of female corporate managers moved down the career ladder after having a baby – two-thirds of that number took clerical positions. Almost half of women managers of shops or restaurants went to work as sales assistants when they sought part-time employment after motherhood. According to the report, the low quality of many part-time jobs means women pay the price of reconciling work and family.
Some employers avoid taking on mothers with children under the age of five, fearing the possibility of another maternity leave and in the belief that having small children makes women less flexible on working hours. A belief that persists despite the fact that there is often little evidence that these staff members take any more time off than others.
Women and Leadership
When it comes to business and leadership – in whatever sphere – women have a great deal to offer. Studies in the United States show that the more women there are at the top of the company, the better it performs. Yet recognising this still seems to be some way off, and not just in the UK. Across the United Nations' 192 member states, there are still only 6 women Presidents and 7 Prime Ministers. Within the Fortune 500, women make up only 12% of the boards of directors and 12.5% of corporate officer roles.
While Britain compares more favourably to, say, Germany where despite a female head of state, there are only two women out of the approximately 200 executives in the boardrooms of Germany's top companies and mothers can only be found in leading positions in 44% of companies compared with 83% in Britain, more needs to be done.
Taking a long term view of talent is not about 'being nice to women'…. the unfortunate reality is that forcing highly skilled women onto a 'mummy track' of restricted opportunities is a waste.
Many high-achieving women tend to have children in their thirties and, ironically, it is at precisely around this age that many companies identify the key top potential in their workforce.
Tellingly, as a recent TUC study reveals, as women pass 30, the gender pay gap trebles to more than 11% and carries on rising to more than 20% between the ages of 50 and 59. According to TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber, many women are paying an unacceptable penalty simply for having children.
There are progressive companies that recognise this and that actively put in place strategies to encourage women who have taken time out for maternity and other caring responsibilities back into the workplace. Training and coaching schemes, mentoring and actively networking with their women employees are some of the ways that successful companies retain their hold on their female talent.
Creating a corporate culture where not just individual attitudes but the business's own processes reduce and eliminate conscious and unconscious barriers to promoting women is crucial. People go – and stay – where they feel welcome and where their talents are not just put to good use, but are recognised and well rewarded.
Taking a long term view of talent is not about 'being nice to women'. It's about realising that offering real fle xibility is rewarded by higher rates of retention, a happier workforce and increased productivity. It is recognising that investing in an asset only makes sense when that asset is allowed to realise a profit. It is about making a choice to be ahead of the game rather than risking being left behind.
Failing to make effective use of their skills is hurting women and damaging economies. Because the unfortunate reality is that forcing highly skilled women onto a 'mummy track' of restricted opportunities in business is a waste. A waste of the financial investment – both personal and state-provided - in educating and training women; a waste of the wealth of experience gained by women of a company's culture and clients; and a waste of the tax and disposable income that today's hard-pressed economies need to deal with the threat of economic recession.