Women working in finance and insurance are hit the hardest, earning almost 30 per cent less than their male co-workers, and across sectors the gap is greatest at senior management and director level, as well as in the skilled trades.
UK government figures suggest equalising women’s productivity could add £600 billion to the economy, and if 2.2 million women who want to work could find suitable jobs, the economy could be boosted by 10 per cent by 2030. Most employers recognise the benefits to be gained from having a more gender balanced board, however, there’s no escaping that it’s challenging for employers to manage maternity leavers and business continuity.
The reality is that a female employee who has two children in the space of five years has to catch up with a male counterpart in terms of skills development. For businesses, losing continuity of employment is also a problem and contributing factor. Even if we don’t like to hear it, taking a year out to have a child can upset progress on projects, team management and customer relationships. But this is life and we have to find a way of making it work now so that we can pave the way for the next generation.
Every day I see women trying to get back to work after taking time out to have a family. These women have so much to offer a business and if employers really want to tap into this incredibly talented pool of people, they have to change the way they deal with it.
Fast-tracking women with upskilling is crucial when they return to the workplace. This not only shows the employee that the employer is investing in them and their career, but in turn also motivates them. Facilitating home working is another huge benefit for working mums and should be relatively easy for companies to implement due to technology improvements and digital advances.
But what can really make the biggest difference when it comes to working mothers’ performance in the workplace is trust. Measure performance on output rather than time spent at a desk. If the results are coming through, targets are being met, and projects are being delivered on time – then it shouldn’t matter how many hours they are actually in the office. It is all about giving people a real opportunity to shine through ability, rather than long hours.
But it’s not all on the employer. Women have a big role to play in eradicating the issue. Females tend to undervalue themselves and therefore don’t negotiate on salary. They worry about over-promising, so they want to prove themselves first – then they’ll ask for more money. In reality this just means they fall further behind on the pay scales. By knowing what the market is offering for similar roles and just acknowledging their potential worth to the business, women can negotiate a much stronger package from day one.
Female employees on maternity leave also have a responsibility to keep themselves abreast of changes in their industry. This doesn’t have to be hugely time consuming, keeping-in-touch days and just being aware of what’s going on can go a long way to helping to make their return to work more valuable.
Having watched the baby boomer generation struggle to deal with this issue and seeing the sacrifices many women have had to make, it wouldn’t surprise me if many millennials are put off either a career or motherhood. However, graduates entering the workplace are far more aware of gender equality and as a result are more likely to challenge it. This is encouraging, and frankly we should take a leaf out of their book.
Collectively working towards eradicating a gender pay gap is the only way we’ll succeed. As my father would say – it’s not a fair world, but when it comes to making the workplace a fairer place, little steps can make a big impact.
Hilary Roberts, managing director of HR Consultancy