Opening up real career choices for women

IWD hashtag

What’s the thing that’s had the biggest impact on your career so far?

It’s a question I was asked on Friday. With International Women’s Day fast approaching I had the privilege of sharing a platform with two amazing speakers as we shared our insights into how we can all empower women’s progress at work.

Unsurprisingly my focus was on how too many working women currently hold themselves back, settle or leave the corporate world. When they become mothers the struggle to find work-life balance can become overwhelming. One of the spinning plates needs to be dropped and it’s highly likely it’s going to be the career one. Research evidence is increasingly showing women holding back from promotion; compromising by accepting any job that offers reduced hours, regardless of whether it plays to their talents or not; or being seduced into thinking that mumpreneur is a better career choice.

I talked about how employers remain ambivalent in their attitude to working mothers. While many have flexible working policies which ostensibly support better balance there’s very little follow through. In the UK uptake of flexible working has stalled for the past ten years as corporate cultures continue to force a choice between career progression or balance. Research has shown that grateful mothers granted the concession of flexible hours are now undertaking a ‘triple shift’ of work followed by childcare and rounded off with more work once the children are in bed. The mothers end up exhausted; yet only half of employers care enough to have a formal work-life balance policy.

I also talked about how previous generations of women had been at the forefront of pushing for workplace change. I shared a model that demonstrated how change started at grassroots level when large numbers of women entered workplaces in the last quarter of the 20th Century. They found themselves butting up against cultural expectations and working practices that failed to acknowledge their dual responsibilities as parents and workers. So they pressed for childcare support and the beginnings of flexible working arrangements to help with the juggle. Formal HR policies (and legislation) came later.

Those early workplace pioneers had few choices but to stay and change the system. As I write this on International Women’s Day I want to acknowledge and applaud their efforts which contributed so much to the progress women have made at work so far. They showed a determination we need to reclaim.

Facilitated by technology today’s working women seem to have many more options. In reality they have no more choices; although employers often ignore that reality.

It’s hardly a choice when a woman leaves her job because she’s been told all managerial roles must be worked full time and the resulting mental pressures are having a negative impact on her well being. It’s hardly a choice when a woman is forced to accept a more junior role as the prerequisite for working less than full time hours.

To open up real choice – I told my audience – we must take matters into our own hands and redesign our jobs. So that we can be both productive and live more balanced lives. It’s one way we can all be #EachforEqual and make things better for the generations that follow.

Returning to the question with which I began this blog: my response was that my career changed when I embraced my power. Given the way powerful women are pilloried on social media; and the fact that I rarely consider myself a powerful woman it felt uncomfortable to say. But the reality is we are all powerful beings; and we can all contribute to leaving the planet a better place than we found it. So this week, as we continue our rebalance journey I encourage you to embrace your power and see where it takes you.

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