The Gender Pay Gap is sticky but focusing on parents might solve it

The gender pay gap in the UK is only narrowing slowly. In fact, at some organisations, such as British Airways, the gap is even widening with 2 in 5 UK companies reporting an increase in their gender pay gap in 2022. According to the Fawcett Society, at the current rate of change the UK gender pay gap will not close until 2051.

This is not simply a looming PR and employer branding risk. It is a fundamental problem for any businesses’ bottom line. A 2019 report by McKinsey found that the least diverse companies, in terms of gender and ethnic minority representation at the top, suffered a 27% decrease in profitability. So what can be done about it?

Gender Pay Gap as Parent Progression Gap

The Gender Pay Gap is really a Parent Progression Gap. When parents have children and take time out to care for them, career progression tends to stall. This is especially true for mothers and even more so for women from minority backgrounds. Not enough mothers reaching the senior, well paid leadership roles compared to men is a root cause of the gender pay gap.

Working parents retain their ambition at work, but too many don’t see themselves as progressing to senior leadership with their current employer. A recent report by the social enterprise Leaders Plus with nearly 1000 working parents in professional roles found that 86% want to progress their careers but only 30% believe they can do so with their current employer. One in four even stated they had in the past moved employers because of their lack of family friendliness.

Verena Hefti MBE, CEO of Leaders Plus and IoD member, believes that leaders need to do more to encourage carers to apply for promotion:

“Our research shows that a majority of working parents want to progress their careers and actively seek out employers where they can picture themselves in a more senior role without sacrificing the bond with their children. Too often, they don’t see how they can progress at their current employer.”

If your working parents aren’t getting those senior roles in your business and are secretly looking to move, there are things you can do.

Fast track proportion of directors working flexibly including part time: 4 in 5 women have children by the time they are 45 but working mothers are deterred from applying to senior roles because of a perceived lack of flexibility and a lack of part time roles. 60% of parents in the Leaders Plus research of parents didn’t apply to a more senior role because they believed that it wouldn’t offer the flexibility of their current role. This is true despite numerous examples of very successful leaders in all industries working part time (see Big Careers Small Children podcast for examples).

To avoid being left behind, employers must showcase senior leaders who work part time and flexibly at Director and Executive Director Level.
If you have these role models already, showcase senior leaders working flexibly in different set-ups with realistic workloads.

Consider using recruitment firms with a track record in recruiting part time or flexible roles for director level appointments to increase senior representation.

Don’t loose your top talent: Identify your current top talent at risk of getting stuck on the career ladder due to parenthood and provide targeted support to avoid them becoming the 1 in 4 working parents who move employers due to childcare responsibilities. 25% of respondents in the research stated that targeted support to help them balance life and work was likely to increase their motivation for applying to a more senior role.

More role models of working parents with children in senior roles is really important to motivation to progress (66% said extremely or very important), as people inferred what’s possible for them by whether they could see senior parents working flexibly above them.

By supporting individual mothers to continue to progress their careers to the top, you will fundamentally change the senior leadership makeup of your organisation. A study by Deloitte in 2021 found that for every woman promoted, three further followed in her footsteps.

You may want to consider an intervention that is proven to help working parents progress their careers such as coaching or the Leaders Plus Fellowship which has a track record of having supported 63% of parents to get a more senior responsibility.

Rethink informal flexibility: You have a good number of flexible working arrangements in place and think you are parent friendly? You may want to think again. Even though hybrid and flexible working is increasingly seen as the norm, 44% of working parents in the Leaders Plus report said they would not recommend their employers. Employers fall down when it comes to unplanned flexibility, such as what to do when a child is ill. Parents in middle management reported to care just as much about getting better support with unplanned flexibility (51%) as childcare cost (51%). Implement policies for unexpected child related commitments such as nursery calling because the child has a fever and your employees are more likely to recommend you.

Don’t hinder productivity by blocking flexibility: Don’t be one of the employers who prevent working parents from being productive. With UK productivity lagging behind the US and Germany by 16%, employers should take note that 50%  of working parents say their productivity has increased since having children, with 34% saying it hasn’t had an impact and only 15% stating that it had a negative impact on productivity.

By offering flexibility, you will have a competitive advantage as 35% of parents reported that they thought more flexible working would improve productivity. On the flipside, preventing flexibility had a negative impact with 50% of parents choosing not to apply for roles because the start and finish times didn’t work with childcare responsibilities. A common example cited was a request from employers to reduce hybrid working and come back to the office even on days where they were for example working on a report on their own.

Ask your working parents what would help them be productive and help them achieve it, this will enable them to get to the senior leadership roles.

Sort out workload: 86% of parents who decided against applying for a senior role did so because they believed the workload would be unfeasible alongside their caring responsibilities (86%), specifically most of them believed that a senior role wouldn’t allow them to do the ad hoc commitments such as attending child school plays or taking a child to the GP.  Interestingly, parents thought senior posts would lack space to handle unplanned parenting issues, and it’s actively discouraging them from stepping up.

You need to sort out the workload barrier by upskilling your managers and directors to design jobs that can be done flexibly at senior level. Have a clear message from senior leadership on what workload is acceptable and what isn’t to combat unspoken overwork expectations and foster a culture of setting boundaries.

Employers who provide support for working parents to progress their careers up the ladder can close the gender pay gap and gain a competitive advantage through having a highly engaged workforce.

About the author

Verena Hefti MBE

CEO of Leaders Plus

Leaders Plus is an award winning social enterprise supporting working parents to progress their careers to a senior leadership level whilst enjoying their young children through award winning Fellowship Programmes.

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