Women in the workplace – providing a choice not a compromise

We know the statistics (raising the level of women’s employment to the same as men’s could lift GDP by 10% by 2030[1]) and we know the morale argument but sometimes connecting what we'd like to make happen with the reality of what does happen isn't that straight forward. Far too often we allow circumstances to force women into making a compromise between their families and their career, when what we need to do is give them a choice.

All too often the solutions either seem so very complex that we choose to bury our heads in the sand or sometimes they’re so easy we wonder if we're insulting women by going ahead and stating the obvious!

There’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way in creating gender parity but most companies and individuals would say there's still a way to go. (The World Economic Forum estimates it will take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity in the workplace.)

Some companies have got ahead of the game, releasing their results early and either showing how they've consistently identified and tackled the issue over years or committed to addressing it swiftly and effectively (and hopefully in advance of the following year's data being released!).

What we've known for some time, and what we expect a lot of the data to continue to show us is that women are often lower paid. But a question remains as to whether this is lower pay for the same job (true in some, but certainly not all cases) or are women accepting a lower paid job so they can fit their work around their home life? If the latter is a more accurate reflection of the reason then how can we make sure the decision taken is done with 'free will' rather than as the only option available to them, potentially leading to disillusioned employees, settling for second best simply to keep the family functioning?

The first and perhaps most obvious step is to be open minded; don’t assume that all women want the same thing at the same point in their lives and careers. Companies need to create a suite of options to allow women to select the support they want, at the time they want it and in the manner they want it. In some cases this may be practical solutions like flexible working or back-up childcare schemes for those with children, however employers also need to consider mentoring schemes and informal networks as well as coaching for line managers (both male and female) on supporting colleagues with the career and family choices that they make.

Employers need to accept that there will be many points on the journey where women may want different things; regular review meetings and career discussions are an essential part of understanding what the right solution is at that particular time. The worst thing that can be done is to stereotype women - don’t assume that a woman with young children will automatically want to take a back seat in her career and equally don’t assume that those without will constantly want to be pushed into the next opportunity. Every one of us is unique and with the myriad of opportunities available there is usually a solution that meets everyone’s needs.

As I started my career it didn’t even occur to me that that I would be treated differently based on my gender or my decision to have children and I see the new generations entering the workforce having the same belief: that they won’t be treated differently based on their gender. We see men asking to be more involved in their children's lives and women Leaning In to their careers as the main breadwinners.

By being open minded, flexible and encouraging of diversity from all minority groups we can create a better work place and a better society, ultimately allowing everyone to benefit.

My personal advice to women wondering what the next step might be – treat your career as a marathon, not a sprint – think about what is the right solution for you at this time in your personal life and know that you can always choose to step in or out at different points. A good employer will appreciate and recognise the value you bring and by enabling personal choice, you and your organisation will be rewarded in the long run.

A truly effective business is one that recognises and appreciates the different strengths that each of its component parts brings. What we mustn’t do though is assume that all women are the same and want the same - the value we bring is in our diversity not our sameness.

Bronwen Burton,

Head of Communications & Brand Client Services, Bright Horizons

[1] Women’s Business Council Maximising women’s contribution to future economic growth – two years on