Role models are critical to female career progression

Written by
Geraldine Gallacher

05 Nov 2015

05 Nov 2015 • by Geraldine Gallacher

A change in direction

Recent research that we conducted among professional city females between ages 21 to 34, sheds some new light on a problem which many organisations are still struggling to answer.

Going into the research we already knew that the transition to maternity was a time when many women are permanently lost from the talent pipeline. What we didn’t know, and what we uncovered from our panel of 750 employees, is that women make the decision very early on in their career – way before they actually have children and become a mother.
Our study, Women and the City, found that only one in four of these young women see themselves committing to their current career trajectory into their 30s. Soon after starting their careers, they are effectively making a decision to park their aspirations when motherhood comes along.

Even taking into account the peripatetic nature of Generation Y in general, this is a worryingly low number. 

Looking at the research more closely it appears that much of the problem for companies with very few women at the top is the perception that they are not environments in which you can see anyone leading a “normal life”. 

Those at the top, predominantly male, are seen to “have sacrificed too much” and the women are seen to be even more “driven and focused” than the men.  When asked what behaviours they most wanted to see in their female role models what came out on top was “the ability to demonstrate a balanced life”. 

How can we address this?

This presents something of a problem for companies who already have a paucity of women. 

Those that do make it to the top are not seen as role models to the majority of their younger female colleagues.  So what can companies do about it? 

There are two ways to tackle this issue.

  • The first is to showcase returning mothers who work flexibly as role models and go further to show the breadth and depth of female talent that is in the organisation outside the leadership team.
  • The second is to offer tailored career development programmes to young women to alert them to the issue.

Neither of these are straightforward solutions.  Encouraging returning mothers to be “showcased” is tricky given their less elastic day and sometimes eroded confidence.

However, it is these new mothers that young women are scrutinising to help them make up their minds whether it’s worth sticking around. If the organisation is seen to be side-lining them or “mummy-tracking” them on unchallenging projects, this will convince them to start looking elsewhere for a level playing field.

Training solutions

When it comes to female-only training programmes, many companies find that young women are quite resistant to the idea of what one Gen Y female uncompromisingly described to me as “special needs training”. As many women have do rather better than their male colleagues through school and university it is understandable that they might find it patronising to be offered extra support in their careers. 

However, companies need to use these programmes to highlight the problems they face trying to retain women and give them the space to consider the issues in advance and help to counteract them.

These activities combined will help to prevent the situation that we see all too often where young women sleep walk into the maternity transition, convinced that the choice of whether to stay or leave is entirely theirs.  The reality is that they are not choosing to opt out; they are being eased out by a culture that isn’t changing enough to make having a rich career and family life a possibility.