Mothers leaving the workforce: Employers are failing to manage women’s family ambitions

If the so-called ‘brain drain’ was the major HR headache of the 1970s, then the current ‘baby drain’ is triggering a full-scale migraine. Despite more than three decades of official equality of opportunity for women, and hundreds of management pronouncements over flexibility, organisations throughout the country are proving unable to hang on to their highest-flying women once the nappy years kick in.

That’s the stark message emerging from Diversity Drives Variety in Corporate Culture, a six-month study of senior women returners by management researchers at Durler Consulting, in collaboration with employment law specialist Denton Wilde Sapte.

The research finds widespread dissatisfaction among women wishing to combine £100,000-plus salaries with the demands of motherhood.

Compliance isn’t everything

Key changes under the Work and Families Act that have just been introduced include extended maternity leave and expanded workers’ rights to apply for flexible working. But UK employers need to go further than pure legal compliance, according to Julian Dawson, managing director of Durler.

Too many employers have embraced gender diversity at senior level for its own sake, he argues. Now they need to wake up to the sheer bottom-line benefits of having more women in senior positions.

Shrinking numbers

To back this up, the report reveals that just one in 10 FTSE 100 non-executive posts and one in 40 senior posts are held by women a stark contrast with the US. There, firms with the highest representation of women in top management achieve on average 34% better financial performance than those with below-average representation.

Durler’s findings are reinforced by a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study which notes that the number of female senior managers in the UK has actually shrunk – from 38% in 2002 to 22% today. PwC’s research attributes this to, among other things, the growing cost of childcare forcing women to stay at home because they are gaining little financially by being at work.

Behind the figures, however, lurks a deeper cultural issue. Entrenched attitudes about gender roles, a culture of presenteeism and long working hours have all combined to make the UK boardroom an unfriendly place for women with young children. The Durler report concludes that men, too, are beginning to demand more family-style flexibility.

The study also finds that, while the commercial sector has its own problems when it comes to attracting and retaining ambitious women, the professions in particular are, by their foot-dragging on ‘maternity management’, exposing themselves to the greatest financial risk. In the UK, only 24% of trainee barristers are female, for example.

Counting your losses

“The loss of these exceptionally qualified women comes at a high cost if they decide not to return to work after their maternity leave,” the report warns, with the period for finding a suitable replacement often stretching to 18 months. The total replacement cost with bonus, search and management fees can run to three times a year’s salary.

Not surprisingly, women candidates for senior jobs are becoming very selective about the organisations they will work for and many now routinely examine a firm’s work ethos, gender diversity programme, family policy and returner management.

This creates an interesting challenge for HR departments, which in many organisations will be charged with spearheading diversity initiatives and ensuring employer benefits are attractive to this potential pool of recruits. “[Many organisations are] already rethinking their attitudes to diversity, but it will fall to HR directors to find a range of solutions to reduce the attrition rates,” says Dawson.

He believes that the lack of role models of women ‘having it all’ at work and home is compounding the lack of progress. “Some employers are terrified of allowing women too much flexibility in case it opens the floodgates to all female staff, while women are reluctant to offer suggestions around flexibility that will help iron out the practical problems when they want to take their children to school in the morning,” he says.

So is positive discrimination the answer? Dawson rejects the notion of a pipeline of female talent for its own sake. He believes that the culture of presenteeism is preventing UK organisations from benefiting from the genuine developments in teleworking and is forcing senior women, and even some men, to look elsewhere for the more flexible working style they crave.

But women themselves could partly be to blame for the drain of senior women in UK businesses, according to Sasha Scott, managing director of the organisation Inclusive Diversity, whose clients come from two of the country’s least diverse employment sectors – investment banking and law.

Scott believes that, while many organisations have recognised the importance of a diversity of opinion and gender at board level, there needs to be a lot more give and take if women are going to get the working conditions they want. “It’s an enormously difficult problem for organisations when a senior women comes back after a baby and says she wants ‘to work differently’, particularly if she appears to be fairly inflexible when it comes to hours.

“Take a senior woman employment lawyer who can never attend a Friday afternoon employment tribunal. She isn’t helping her colleagues and isn’t doing her own standing any good either.” Scott adds that evening networking and being on call seven days a week are the norm in some of these jobs, so it’s hardly surprising that employers struggle to balance the needs of their clients with the needs of female fee-earners.

Change in attitudes

That doesn’t absolve all employers in this sector, however. “In senior circles in banking and law, it is still the norm for men to have stay-at-home wives who handle all things domestic for them, and who simply don’t have a clue how hard it is for a working mother to give her all both to the family and her firm,” explains Scott. “For many organisations, it isn’t simply a case of having more enlightened policies towards flexibility, but a change in cultural attitudes.”

Until this happens, there will still be those women who are forced to get the nanny to bring the children into the office at night simply so they can kiss them goodnight.

Fear factors drive women returners out

Key findings of the Durler Consulting study include:

  • 50% of respondents to the survey returned to work within eight weeks of childbirth or earlier than the usual period of six months’ maternity leave.

  • 20% had negotiated new contractual terms before going on leave, for fear of being ‘out of circulation’ for too long.

  • More than 60% of all respondents want to be assessed on performance, not working hours.

  • 75% of City women felt vulnerable about returning to work and feared that their job would be changed and their best clients re-assigned.

Among the problems women returners identified were: too few re-integration programmes a lack of flexibility in the workplace poor budget planning to take account of maternity costs and low awareness of the real replacement costs of losing senior women on/after maternity leave.

Durler Consulting and Denton Wilde Sapte have launched a new consultancy service helping organisations to undertake, analyse and implement ‘model contracts’ that offer diversity benefits across the board.

These contracts include:

  • Flexible working options for all staff

  • Sabbaticals taken after four, seven and 10 years’ service, varying from three months on full pay to one year on half pay

  • Extended holiday leave on full or half pay up to three months, but not taken in one block.

For more information visit Durler Consulting.

Case study: Allen & Overy

Law firm Allen & Overy introduced maternity leave coaching just over a year ago on a three-part basis: prior to going on leave, during leave, and before coming back. According to HR officer Jane Masey, the boost to women’s self-confidence has been obvious. All coaches are women and senior staff are eligible for three one- or two-hour one-on-one sessions. The firm also offers emergency childcare via a crèche close to the office, emergency leave, childcare vouchers, parenting seminars for both sexes and in-house diversity events that Masey says “help keep the issue of diversity front of mind”.

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