Michelle writes for The Guardian: myths about women and work

6th February, 2015

The kids are to blame: and other myths about women and work

New research from Harvard Business School shows that the traditional excuses used to explain why women leave the workplace just aren’t true. Businesses need to rethink their strategies if they want to retain top female talent.

[caption id="attachment_9495" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Image Source/George Doyle/Image Source It's not children holding women back at work. Photograph: Image Source/George Doyle/Image Source[/caption]

With all this talk of glass ceilings, work-life balance and unequal pay, I think we can sometimes forget what life is really like for working women. New research from Harvard Business School sheds light on the reality of the situation and contradicts common myths about how women’s careers unfold.

The research by Ely, Stone and Ammerman looks at 25,000 graduates of the Harvard Business School MBA aged 26-67. It explores how they feel about life, work and career aspirations. Almost all of the graduates surveyed outlined the importance of leading fulfilling lives (both professional and personal) yet the ability to achieve this played out differently according to gender.

The figures showed that during their early careers, both men and women view professional achievements as important. Further along the career path, family happiness, relationships, balancing life and work and helping others becomes more of a focus for both sexes.

Indeed, nearly 100% of those surveyed, regardless of gender, said that “quality of personal and family relationships” was very important, as was work that was meaningful and satisfying. Opportunities for growth and development at work were more important to women than men.

However, mid-career something odd happens. Whereas between 50% and 60% of men reported being “extremely or very satisfied” with their experiences of meaningful work, professional accomplishments, opportunities for career growth and compatibility of work and personal life, only 40-50% of women were similarly satisfied.

We already know how this plays out when it comes to recruitment at the most senior levels in organisations: just 5% of Fortune 1000 CEOs are women, with a similar handful in our own FTSE 100.

It would seem reasonable to assume that this mid-career blip is directly related to taking time out for motherhood. In fact, the Harvard report found that only 11% of mothers left the workforce to care for children full-time. In actual fact, the key reasons cited for women not reaching senior positions were based around a lack of flexibility, for example, firms passing over mothers for promotion or not providing new challenges for mothers that return to work. There appears to be a preconceived notion that part-time women want less challenging work.

Alongside this, a large majority of men expected their partners to take primary responsibility for childcare when only half of women expected to be in this position. The reality is that more than two-thirds of women actually end up in this role. In short, women were more likely to expect their marriage or partnership to be equal; only to see their expectations not met, while at the same time watching their partners’ careers take off. Unsurprisingly, the most satisfied women were those where career and childcare responsibilities were equal to those of their partner.

Conversely – and this is the root of the issue – men who found themselves in relationships where they were taking equal responsibility for childcare were less satisfied with their career growth than their peers with more traditional arrangements.

Somewhat depressingly it seems that we are still in something of a time warp, with the reality of working life for mothers falling far below expectations and ambitions.

It seems to me that we need to make urgent progress in preparing for different stages of career for both sexes. In terms of supporting women, we really do need to break some taboos. While juggling career and family will always be demanding, we are facing a real problem if the only work offered to women returning from maternity leave is unchallenging.

It’s just not true that women aren’t interested in high-profile, demanding work, nor is it true that they are riskier hires as there is a danger that they will discard their careers after parenthood. Decisions about family life and relationships are personal, but options are easier to consider if returning to a job after maternity leave isn’t just simply about treading water.

Looking at these results, it seems that one of the real places where firms could help is in encouraging a culture change supporting egalitarian partnerships, offering men the opportunity to share home responsibilities without career progression being compromised.

Family-friendly hours or flexitime alone aren’t enough when it comes to retaining high-potential women: the issue is more complex than that. We need to create a level playing field regardless of gender, where providing meaningful work, challenging assignments and opportunities for career growth are essential components of retaining high performers.

The full article can be read here

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