Bold steps are needed to tackle the ‘motherhood penalty’ and close the gender pay gap

3 Jan 2020 By Verena Hefti

While employers talk a lot about equality, many do little to make this a reality. But it doesn’t have to be this way, argues Verena Hefti

The World Economic Forum estimates that it could take more than two centuries to close the gender pay gap at today’s painfully slow rates of progress. And the organisation recently predicted it would take 99 years for there to be social and economic gender parity more widely. Fortunately, some courageous companies aren’t prepared to wait and are successfully overcoming the barriers to change. So what does it take to make a difference?

Women now make up a sizeable proportion of the graduate intake even in once male-dominated professions such as finance and law. Yet far fewer are progressing to high-paid senior management positions, which is reflected in gender pay gaps that remain stubbornly high across the economy.

One of the big reasons is the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’ – women are two-thirds less likely to get promoted after having children than men. Behind these statistics are a host of distressing human stories. Cherished ambitions unfulfilled. Parents torn between giving up work and giving up their careers because flexible working isn’t a viable option in their job. Frustration with employers that talk a lot about equality, but do little in practice to make it a reality even though it’s costing them millions in wasted experience and lost talent. 

And these needless hurdles are faced by dads as well as mums; for example, a man's flexible working request is twice as likely to be rejected than a woman's.

Yet careers don’t have to follow this pattern. Parents should be able to give 100 per cent to their children and their careers, rather than having to choose between them. 

In November, Leaders Plus joined with the RSA for a Courageous Experiments workshop, which gave HR directors, innovators and execs an opportunity to share bold ideas on how parents can thrive at work. Here is a selection that I believe would resonate and be applicable in almost any company:

Advertising all jobs as flexible by default

Many parents want to work part time. But all too often, part-time employees don’t progress up the career ladder. Since March, Zurich has advertised all jobs as being flexible, including senior roles. It is early days, but after three months, applications from women had increased 25 per cent – 45 per cent in senior roles – and the average number of applicants per post had doubled. 

Changing the culture by confronting microaggressions

Too many parents leave the workforce not because of high levels of overt discrimination, but the dripfeed of undermining messages they receive from colleagues. ‘Don’t be such a downer!’ to an invitation to go for a drink. Or ‘finished relaxing at home?’ when a parent comes back in after a day off.

In 2015 Deloitte developed powerful mandatory inclusive leadership workshops for its senior staff, using storytelling to focus on the importance of respect and to show the impact that actions and words can have on people. It rolled out these workshops to 6,000 of its senior employees and leaders, alongside consistent messaging from its CEO and new routes for its people to escalate concerns. Emma Codd, global special adviser for inclusion, said: “Having a CEO who vocally led on this was crucial, as was our commitment to ensuring that everyone understood what inclusive leadership really means.” 

Equal parental leave

Aviva has been one of the pioneers of equal parental leave. Earlier this year, the group launched a policy that gives both women and men enhanced pay during maternity leave/shared parental leave at 26 weeks. Returning parents can also transition back into the job by working 30 hours for up to 12 weeks, but being paid for 35. A clear sign this is all making a difference is there are now more men than women on parental leave at Aviva. 

So let’s not be downhearted. True, incremental improvements can only move the dial on gender pay so much. Yet, with courage and commitment, it is possible for parents to face the future with confidence and eliminate some of the biggest brakes on change.

Verena Hefti is founder and CEO of Leaders Plus

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