It was back in 2013 that Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, published her seminal text Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead which encouraged women to “sit at the table,” seek challenges, take risks, and pursue their career goals. It examined the barriers holding women back from taking on leadership positions, such as discrimination, sexism, and sexual harassment; and crucially, demonstrated how men could be supporting women more, both in the workplace and at home. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” she argued.
Sandberg also claimed there were barriers that women were creating for themselves by internalising systematic discrimination and societal gender roles. She argued that for change to happen, women needed to push against these barriers and strive for leadership roles. However, while Sandberg’s book had much impact, the reality is that four years on many of the challenges that she wrote about still exist today. Women continue to suffer from a ‘Motherhood Penalty’ as it’s called, once they return to the workplace after starting a family, making it difficult for them to achieve a healthy work-life balance. As a result, far too many abandon their plans to continue advancing their career, with 43% of highly qualified women with children leaving skilled careers or off-ramping for a period of time. The statistics for women at the top is also quite grim: while there were 12 women running Fortune 500 companies in 2011 and now there are 23, that still represents just 4.6% of all 500 CEOs.
Harvard Kennedy School conducted a study on the subject, and found a plethora of disadvantages facing mothers in the workplace, compared to women without children and men, including a per-child wage penalty where they were recommended a 7.9% lower starting salary than non-mothers. In addition, competency ratings were 10% lower for mothers compared to non-mothers among otherwise equal candidates. Mothers were also considered to be 12.1 percentage points less committed to their jobs than non-mothers while fathers were perceived as being five percentage points more committed than non-fathers. Mothers were also six times less likely than childless women and 3.35 times less likely than childless men to be recommended for hire.
One of the issues, it seems, is that professional women lack faith in believing a work-life balance is achievable, and therefore do little to get their needs heard and listened to. Arianna Huffington, former editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post and current CEO of Thrive Global, argued recently that “women should feel free to speak up about what is important to them.” For example, she said at a panel event that many female employees at Thrive Global have expressed the desire to take their children to school early in the morning, at time that usually conflicts with work.”If the team knows that, they can arrange the schedule around conference calls, etcetera, accordingly. But women have been reluctant to say that because they feel they are going to be categorised of being on the ‘mummy track,'” she said.
In the UK, from September 2017, families where both parents are working will be entitled to 30 hours of free childcare per week for their preschool-aged children. This is a step in the right direction, but companies also need to be prioritising what they can do to better support women, and specifically mothers, in the workplace, enabling them to advance their careers while also allowing them the flexibility to parent.
There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be able to continue to strive for their career ambitions once they become mothers, but to do so, corporate culture needs to change…
Mae O’Malley (a former Google contract lawyer) started Paragon Legal following the birth of her third child, after recognising the drop-out rate for working mums within the legal profession who were finding it impossible to sustain a 65-hour working week. Her business now employs almost 70 lawyers, most of them women looking for a way to make their career work around their family commitments. Lawyers at Paragon work an average of 35 hours a week, although jobs can range anywhere from 10 to 40 hours a week. Work is organised by assignment where clients are charged by the hour, with each assignment lasting for an average of 12 months, and Paragon lawyers are paid more per hour than the average but work fewer hours. The model has proven so successful that 95% of Paragon attorneys continuously move from one assignment to another, with clients ranging from LinkedIn, through to Netflix, Facebook and Cisco.
“What Paragon does is allow them a safe harbour for a couple of years where they can do meaningful work such that when they feel like they can do it, they can step right back in. Prior to models like Paragon, you either stayed in and worked the 100-hour weeks or you leave, and you don’t come back,” explains O’Malley.
PowerToFly is a job site launched a couple of years ago by two working mums, Katharine Zaleski and Milena Berry, that connects women with employers who are willing to let them work remotely. Targeted primarily towards women in tech, and industry that has historically suffered from a lack of women in senior positions, it has connected thousands of women to jobs in 43 countries, for approximately 700 big-name employers including BuzzFeed and Hearst.
“There are two bad choices for women: go back to the office full-time or slowly lose your career because you can’t go back to the office full-time,” Zaleski, a former editor at The Huffington Post, explains.“The amount of women in the workforce peaked in 1999, and that’s because there’s no third way. We see ourselves as creating that option.” PowerToFly leads by example and has 35 women working in eight countries around the world.
In the UK, Tideway, a company delivering the Thames Tideaway Tunnel to tackle sewage pollution in the River Thames, has introduced a 12-week ‘returnship’ programme for skilled professionals who’ve taken a career break of two years or more. The paid programme covers all departments including construction, innovation, quality and commercial, and is run in partnership with Women Returners, an organisation that champions returnships. The programme is designed to boost confidence in women who’ve taken a career break to raise a family, and the mentorship provided helps them brush up on their professional skills, and bring themselves up-to-speed on changes that may have happened within their profession, such as where technology has evolved.
According to The Telegraph, 23 companies offered returnships in the UK last year and around 90% of those on placements are women. Julie Thornton, Head of HR at Tideway, said: “Our first returnship programme last year was a huge success, with all seven returners offered positions at Tideway after they completed the initial 12-week returnship. The scheme offers help and advice throughout, and is a great way of supporting highly experienced and able professionals back into work after a break.”
There’s little doubt that the subject of women returning to work after having a family is a divisive one, but whatever your opinion, it’s of increasing importance that women with drive and ambition are able to sit at the top table, while also having the flexibility and health to raise a family. Much needs to change still. Companies need to offer an environment that encourages women back to work, and supports them in their career aspirations. We would love to hear your views on the subject below…