There is a huge amount of research being undertaken around the impact of gender diversity in leadership roles. Well known, reputable companies such as McKinsey, Fortune, Dow Jones have all found that organisations with more women in the leadership ranks experience better financial results.
Currently over half of all graduates in Ireland are women, however at senior leadership levels the number falls to around 21% according to the CEB’s Global Labour Market Survey of Q1-Q3 2014.
So, where have all the women gone?
Let me tell you a story about a woman; let’s call her Jane, who was a senior manager within a very progressive ‘cool’ organization for 5 years. Jane was returning to work after a 6 month maternity leave and wanted to have more flexibility in her hours. Jane’s employer wasn’t open to the idea of flexible working or using parental leave to create a shorter working week. As a compromise Jane suggested a ‘staggered’ return to work working 2 days a week for 2 months and then returning full time in the third. Considering Jane could have had up to one year away from the office she felt this was a fair compromise. At the end of the first 2 months Jane was told that she wasn’t performing in her role and that she would be facing disciplinary action that could lead to her dismissal. This came as a complete surprise to Jane who had only been back in the office for 8 working days. The company soon realized they had picked the wrong person to mess with as Jane took legal advice and realized that she had a very good case for sex discrimination. Jane left the company after negotiating a settlement payment instead of taking the company to court. Jane has since found a great new employer who has accommodated her request for a 4 day working week so things have ended well.
The terrible thing is that this isn’t a work of fiction. This is a situation that really happened. It’s one of many that we hear about at Mumager when we talk to working mums. In fact Jane herself told us of a party she went to recently where she met 2 other first-time mums who had encountered problems and been ‘let go’ by their organisations after maternity leave.
In my experience working as HR Manager for various multinationals I saw first-hand the issue of what happens when a women returns from maternity leave. In one instance a successful sales woman who wanted to work a 4 day week was removed from her lucrative accounts and given much smaller accounts as the manager didn’t believe that working part-time could be effective. Despite receiving advice that he was in breach of the law the manager continued with the decision again resulting in an out of court settlement equivalent to a years’ salary.
So, why are employers so slow to support working mums? In my opinion there are 5 main elements to the employer problem:
Negative experiences during an employee’s pregnancy
Some employers and line managers have bad experiences before a woman even takes maternity leave. There may be illness or complications during pregnancy that require the mum-to-be to have more unscheduled time off than the employer had anticipated. This can start the negativity against working mums.
Then there is the issue of maternity cover. In some companies a new person is hired on a short term contract. Many people working on contracts are hoping that there will be an opportunity to be made permanent so they put in more hours and effort and time than is required in an attempt to prove how worthy they are. This can make a manager think ‘wow – this person is terrific, I can’t bear to lose them’ and they do whatever they can to make the person permanent while forgetting that they already have a permanent employee who just happens to be on maternity leave.
Other companies don’t hire cover and the team has to muddle along with less resources which can also have an impact. The manager can start to resent the absent mum and blame them for issues arising.
Employment law and HR advice
The next issue is the laws and rules around asking a woman when she is coming back from maternity leave. Many HR people will say that you must never ask a woman when she’s coming back as it’s illegal. Again this creates problems for the employer as they cannot plan resources for the future.
Requests for flexible working and/or reduced hours
Many companies do not have formal policies around flexible working or reduced hours. In Ireland there is no legal entitlement to flexible working or reduced hours so employers don’t spend time creating workable policies. My experience suggests that managers are fearful of ‘setting a precedent’ so they just refuse all requests rather than considering each one on its merits.
Unconscious gender bias
This is a complex issue and I can’t even begin to cover the science behind it. In brief it means that we are all vulnerable to the influence of deeply held views and ideas which create unconscious bias. In a male dominated world we know that unconscious gender bias is represented everywhere – the film industry, the media, advertising, social media, speaker representation at conferences, stock photography, and children’s toys. This has a huge impact on how women are perceived and treated at work, and not just by men but by women themselves
The good news is that despite the many issues there are some solutions that employers can put in place:
Encourage and embrace dialogue
Employers need to encourage and train their managers to have open dialogues with women from the minute they announce their pregnancy. If a woman feels supported by her manager and company from the outset she will be more likely to let them know about health issues and feel more comfortable being honest about the length of time she is considering for maternity leave.
This dialogue also assists when it comes to arranging maternity cover. By involving the pregnant employee in either hiring the contractor or deciding how her work can be best allocated the manager is less likely to encounter challenges from the woman being absent.
By having honest and open conversation, without fear of repercussions, managers are more likely to understand some of the challenges that working parents face. In response to issues raised by mums returning from maternity leave one company, Telstra, created an initiative of a 6 month rotational role that had limited or no travel so that women could choose to have their first 6 months back at work with no additional pressures
HR professionals need to speak up and make women leaders visible
HR departments need to challenge decisions to make contractors permanent before a woman has returned from maternity leave. They need to ensure managers are fully aware of all legal pitfalls and act as advocates for working parents, not against them. The commercial data is there to support these decisions so HR professionals need to use the information available to ensure organisations are making the right and ethical decisions.
HR departments also have a role to play in ensuring women leaders are visible. Give women the same access to mentoring and coaching as their male counterparts. Ensure they are speaking at company events and conferences and not just because they are women but because of the valuable contributions that they make.
Flexible working schedules need to be the default not the exception
When the Corporate Leadership Council asked women leaders the question ‘what would help women most in their career progression?’ the top answer was flexible working schedules with 25% agreeing on this. Figures like these need to be seriously considered by business leaders and HR Directors and flexible working practices put in place to support working parents. Employers need to recognize that not everyone wants a 3 day week, some people may benefit from a couple of days of working from home, or from shorter days or from compressed hours (working longer days but less of them). There are so many variations on flexible working and the sooner employers put policies in place to support this the more likely they are to encourage and enable women leaders
Ramping up and fast track options need to be available for mums
Employers need to appreciate that a break from the workplace for maternity leave does not mean a woman has opted out of having a career. Encouraging women to attend ‘ramping-up’ programmes after maternity leave has a significant impact on the woman’s productivity, confidence and contribution to the workplace. Whether a woman has been out of the office for 6 months, a year, or 3 years, having access to some kind of workplace training or coaching can and will benefit both the mum and the employer.
Line manager training
Employers must train their line managers to be able to support the working parents in their organization. Training needs to be continuous and updated frequently. If managers understand gender bias they are less likely to fall victim to it. If they understand the legal aspects of maternity they are less likely to make bad decisions. If they understand how to conduct open and honest conversations and give feedback appropriately they are less likely to ignore and start resenting issues that may be affecting the whole team. Managers need support and guidance on how to implement flexible working practices instead of saying a blanket ‘no’ to every request that comes their way. By understanding the underlying benefits to the team and organisation they may be more likely to appreciate that flexible schedules are an essential not a ‘nice to have’.
I strongly believe that all women and all workers have a part to play in ensuring that women are not discriminated against because they choose to have children. Women need the courage to challenge company policies and practices if they feel that they don’t support working parents. We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to equality in the workplace but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done!
At Mumager we support both working parents and employers to create and find win-win solutions. If you’d like more information about our line manager training or post-maternity workshops or would like a PDF download of this article please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter or Facebook.