Women don't opt out, they are eased out by ill-informed managers

Written by
Geraldine Gallacher

08 Sep 2015

08 Sep 2015 • by Geraldine Gallacher

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Plugging the leak in the female pipeline is fast becoming a priority for HR professionals working in certain industries. In my experience, the industries which struggle most to hang onto their women are law, banking, professional services, construction and technology. You might imagine that by focusing on increasing the number of female graduates you take on that the problem will eventually rectify itself. But this is not the case.

The construction and tech industries have a lot to do to make careers attractive to women in the first instance. But for the other industries mentioned, particularly law, attracting female talent is the least difficult part, particularly now that most graduates are female (57% in the UK and higher in other countries). The biggest leak in the female talent pipeline is when women decide to have children. They believe that they can't manage their career and their family successfully.
Organisations have cottoned onto this and many recognise that coaching support around this key transition can tackle limiting beliefs.

More enlightened organisations recognise that you also need to coach and support managers. Research shows that women make up their mind about the viability of continuing in their career, based on the attitude of their immediate manager. HR professionals have a good radar for those managers who just "get it" when it comes to managing their returning mothers, and for those who don't! 

So what characterises a 'difficult' manager?

  • Works extremely long hours
  • Has no work life balance
  • Cannot contemplate most jobs in their department being done flexibly because the client won't like it
  • Agrees reluctantly to a flexible working but avoids giving them any important assignments
  • Has a habit of calling meetings and handing out work after 5.30pm or very early in the morning
  • Talks a lot about believing in a meritocracy and is ardently against quotas
  • Thinks it's natural that women would want to be at home with their children,
  • Often has a non-working spouse

HR need to do more to call out these behaviours which curtail the careers of working parents. I recognise that this is not always easy: try telling a law partner that he works too hard and is overly focused on his career. Indeed, these are much lauded behaviours. Nonetheless, it is these attitudes that help ease many women out of their careers. 

Introducing a realistic work-life balance

HR professionals might like to explode the myth that all mothers would, if money were not an option, like to be at home with their children. It's worth drawing attention to research carried out by Dr Catherine Hakim, social scientist and author, which finds only one in five women are home-centred and one in five women want both work and family in their lives. The research shows 80% of the female population fall into the adaptive category and want to work and I should imagine the figure is much higher for older professional women. 

An understanding that women want to work should help managers view returning mothers in a different light.It's also wise for managers not to assume they understand what a returning mother wants from work. Many women are victims of "benevolent bias" when well-intentioned managers give less taxing work to them on their return. It's vital that they discuss these assumptions, - for example as long as there is sufficient warning, new parents can travel for work. A more challenging project can often be just the mental stimulation that a new parent wants and is precisely their reason for returning. 

Finally it's vital to ensure your HR teams are aware of the issue of losing too many mothers and don't fall into the trap of colluding with managers in their attitudes. Some returning mothers that I have coached have complained of a lack of empathy from younger members of the HR team.

By having an open dialogue and making sure managers understand most mothers who return to work do ‘want to work’ I believe HR can do much to help stem the flow of talented women going through the maternity transition.