What’s really holding women back at work? by Catriona Cookson

International Women’s Day has been celebrated on March 8th since 1913. With the World Economic Forum predicting that the gender pay gap won’t be closed until 2186, this is an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review from two professors and their work with a global consulting firm. Retained by the firm to investigate why women were leaving and why they weren’t making it to partner they set about interviewing staff and gathering the data.

Most of the narrative around this assumes the long hours required to reach the highest promotions don’t fit with women and their family life and so their career stalls.

Is this really true? The professors found that the long hours culture was as much a problem for men as for women, and there was virtually no difference in the staff turnover rate between men and women. Women were held back because unlike men they were encouraged to take accommodations including part time working and moving to internal roles. In an attempt to promote the careers of women, this didn’t solve the problem, it actually perpetuated it.

The real culprit they found was a culture of long hours, of overselling and overdelivering, of having consultants produce so much work, some of which was unnecessary. This affected everyone but had a disproportionate effect on women.

Well, needless to say the leaders at the consulting firm didn’t respond well to this …an uncomfortable truth is one they are used to delivering to clients but doesn’t sit well on their own doorstep! The professors hit a brick wall – the leaders of the firm could deflect responsibility for the lack of women partners on the grounds it is inevitable, men could justify the sacrifices they made in family life as inevitable and vice versa for women ……and all the while the long hours culture goes unchallenged.

There’s a lot more to take from this article, and it’s well worth a read. Its conclusion is a sensible one – what holds women back at work is not a unique challenge of balancing the demands of work and family life. It’s a general culture of corporate overwork in which women pay higher professional costs. To make working life better for women, we need to also make it better for men. Men need to work reasonable hours, take their paternity leave, and their shared parental leave. In doing so, their own working experience is enhanced, their families and friends will see the benefit and in turn, there’s a greater opportunity of workplace equality for women.

Is this achievable? …..there’s no reason why not …..but EVERYONE has a responsibility to make it happen.

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