Aiming for leadership equality in the UK

By Margi Gordon
February 23, 2010

MargiGordon- Margi Gordon is director of tailored programmes at Roffey Park Institute – a provider of Leadership and Management courses. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.-

It’s been 40 years since the Equal Pay Act and yet there is still a gender reward gap.  We know that professional women in the UK start their careers on equal pay with men and continue to do well until they take a career break to have children. They then face the difficult choice of prioritising their career or their family.

Some find suitable child care and return to work full time, others decide to role swap and their husband stays at home, struggling to establish a support network and integrate into the ubiquitous mothers’ and toddlers’ groups. Others decide to set up their own business, where they can decide their working patterns, and often find this is far more rewarding and successful than their previous professional career.

The other option, favoured by many women (and a small number of men) is to work part- time until the children become more independent. This achieves a practical balance between home and work but at a cost to the woman’s career. All too often the senior roles are considered too demanding to be handled by a part-time or job-share applicant. The result is that women find themselves marking time for about 10 years whilst their career is on a plateau. Women accept this is the price they have to pay for being a mother.

It has been my experience that when those women return to the traditional career ‘ladder’ and try to climb the next rung, they are well behind the men applying for the same roles in both age and reward. It is noticeable in the teaching profession for example, that female applicants for headship are significantly older than men applying for the same roles. Women wanting to achieve partnership in professional practices face the same challenge.

We are facing a terrific loss of excellent talent if part time working is not taken seriously. Women are capable of balancing home and work, and finding ways to work flexibly, but often the (male) decision makers recruiting to senior roles have a traditional perspective- ‘it’s a tough job, we need someone who will commit 24/7 to it’.

In reality, a job shared by two talented people provides an excellent option, as the role benefits from twice the energy and creativity when facing unusual demands. Human resources departments rarely challenge whether senior roles must be a full time responsibility, except in the most enlightened organisations. It should be common practice to ask whether the job can be done flexibly, from home, part time or job share and it would benefit men and women alike.

We have great talent in the UK and in tough economic conditions we need to use that ability to the full. Women are a powerful economic force and they need to be confident about their value. A more enlightened approach to flexible working at senior levels would create a gender balance and generate innovation and productivity. It might even allow us ‘to do more with less’!

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