Working mothers have lost out on promotions, are regularly doing work outside office hours and have been subject to ‘fake’ flexible working where they are granted reduced hours but expected to produce the same amount of work.
These are among the key findings of a survey by Careering into Motherhood, which helps employees through career transitions after becoming a parent.
Its survey of more than 2,000 working mothers found that 65% feel they have fewer career opportunities available to them since maternity leave, and almost half feel their chances of promotion have been negatively impacted by flexible working arrangements.
Eighty-nine per cent said their work routines had changed since becoming a parent, with 40% doing more tasks outside normal hours, such as responding to emails in the evening.
Many felt they were subject to “fake” flexible working arrangements where their hours were reduced but the expected outputs were the same as when they were full time.
One said: “I was told that management loved it when women came back to work four days a week, as they knew they’d get five days’ work out of them for less pay.”
A number of respondents felt sidelined after becoming a parent, with one reporting: “I was not allowed to put my name on a company brochure as a contact as I ‘might go and have another baby and we need this brochure to have a three-year shelf-life’.”
This was despite most women saying their levels of ambition had either increased or stayed the same since having a child. Being a working parent also had a detrimental impact on relationships for respondents, with three-quarters saying their main adult relationship had changed because of work-related stress since becoming a parent.
An overwhelming majority, 95%, said governments could do more to support working mothers and their families.
Sarah Jackson, visiting professor at the Cranfield School of Management, said of the findings: “The evidence points to how women are suffering career detriment on their return to work, given less valuable roles, their paths to promotion blocked off. At worst, this is discrimination and employers risk being taken to an employment tribunal. But overall, it is a tragic waste of talent and energy and commitment.”
Waste of talent
Researchers pointed out that the UK workforce has shrunk by one million overall since 2020, with Office for National Statistics figures showing that 27.2% of women were not working due to family commitments in summer 2022, compared with 7.4% of men.
“HR policies don’t matter if working mums don’t feel able to take advantage of the flexibility without a sense of guilt, that there might be implications for their career in some way,” said Helen Willetts, director of internal communications at BT Group. “Women need to come together and work with HR to lobby for the kinds of changes that will re-make work culture.”
Willetts added that more needed to be understood about working fathers’ experiences “so that men can also feel able to ask for leave or a change to their working hours” in order to create more equality.
Describing changes to their working arrangements, most (60%) said this involved reduced working hours, followed by different start and finish times (55%), working from home (55%) and more ‘out of hours’ working (40%). Just over one in 10 said their working hours had increased.
When asked what their ideal workplace would look like, respondents said they would like to see fewer after-hours social events, less need to be in the office at certain times, and an end to “lengthy HR processes to request flexible working”.
Things that would improve their working environment included an on-site nursery, breastfeeding facilities, social events during the day and full-time coaching.
“Organisations and their HR teams have made great in-roads in recent years around introducing more family-friendly policies, but as this report shows, the policies in themselves aren’t enough,” added Dorrette Sutherland of Liberty Specialty Market.
“While being a terrible experience, the Covid-19 pandemic made working from home more accepted, more normal; but the comments in the survey show there is still more work to be done.
“What matters is how policies and practices are delivered by managers and how they deal with situations involving working parents – they’re the ones who have to find the right balance with being family-friendly and making sure the job gets done. More education and training is needed.”