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Your organisation’s entry level intake of high potential talent is probably gender balanced – or even skewed in favour of women who make up the majority of university graduates. As careers progress, however, the proportion of women moving into senior roles declines; leading to a gender pay gap in many organisations. Reducing that gap depends on resolving three key issues.

1.Career paths are based on traditional male working patterns
Current workplaces were established on the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ with a single minded focus on his job, available to work for long hours and able to travel at the drop of a hat. With no outside interests or responsibilities he prioritised work above all else. Most organisations still equate ambition with this absolute commitment to work.

The ‘deal worker’ arrangement depended on the support of what economist Heather Boushey terms ‘the silent partner’ or Corporate Wife. Her role was to deal with anything and everything that might distract her husband from a 100% focus on his job. Workplaces around the world are still set up to operate on this model: despite the fact that the majority of women now also work. Outmoded corporate cultures remain riddled with embedded and outdated practices that get in the way of women’s progress.

2.Women’s career paths are different
Just as women’s working patterns differ from those of the ‘ideal worker’ so too do their career trajectories. Traditional corporate career models assume progress in a full-time job with a fast trajectory in the early years slowing to stability and maintenance in the middle years and decline after the age of forty. Research has documented the differences in women’s careers but the corporate world has been slow to catch up.

Caring responsibilities have a greater impact on women’s careers. Researchers Lisa A Mainiero and Sherry E Sullivan talk about ‘Kaleidoscope Careers’. Rather like a real kaleidoscope women shift the pattern throughout their lives by rotating different aspects of those lives. During their early careers women – just like men – will tend to focus on career goals. In mid-career however women are faced with challenges around balance; and family demands now come to the fore. In later years women are often freed from these issues. They may still want balance but the kaleidoscope will turn again.

Women are also more likely to change careers as they progress through life. Dutch researchers Ida Sabelis and Elisabeth Schilling refer to this as having ‘frayed careers’. In contrast to traditional male career paths, research also suggests women find a renewed sense of energy, purpose and vitality for work once their caring load has lightened. Employers have struggled to accommodate these differences.

Faced with the dilemma of women’s stalled careers many employers assumed that women lacked the key (often ‘masculine’) skills needed to progress. They introduced women’s development programmes designed to help women cultivate these skills and behaviours. While such initiatives are generally positive the downside is the risk of being seen to ‘fix the women’ so they can navigate existing corporate cultures. In recent years the corporate response has been to shift the focus to ‘fixing the organisation’ and specifically to addressing the ‘unconscious biases’ that hold women back. Useful in itself but not enough to change the deeply embedded cultural norms that drive outmoded working practices.

3.Flexible working is a proven strategy for supporting women’s careers
These outmoded corporate cultures often continue to punish a request for flexibility. Unconscious biases come into play and assumptions are made that the employee is less committed, less available and – having other priorities – less likely to put the effort into work. Professor Joan Williams calls this the ‘flexibility stigma’. The reality is that in many organisations people are still forced to choose between balance and senior careers.

At the same time, a wealth of both research and anecdotal evidence confirms that achieving a semblance of work-life balance is a top priority for women with caring responsibilities. Many are prepared to trade both income and career aspirations in their efforts to find it. And the most popular strategy for achieving flexibility is to opt for reduced hours which are hard to find at senior levels.

So, is your Talent Management Strategy gender neutral?

Ask yourself the following questions:
>How often are your maternity returners forced to downshift career expectations in order to access flexible working?
>What percentage of your promotions/senior managers are employees working a flexible or ‘non-standard’ arrangement?
>What signals is your organisation sending to ambitious female employees?

Anna Meller, Work Re-Balance Expert at Sustainable Working Ltd

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