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I'll tell you something: Ensuring parents progress is the key to closing the gender pay gap

28 Sep 2019 By Verena Hefti

Parents shouldn't have to choose between their children and their careers, argues Verena Hefti

A new mum on maternity leave said to me last week: “I didn’t push my ambition out with my baby, but I feel forced to choose between being ambitious in my career and being an engaged parent.” She is far from alone. In fact, too many employers fail to understand that new parents want to progress their careers, and they certainly don’t address this when they create action plans to fix their gender pay gap.

Almost nine in 10 FTSE 350 companies report that one of the biggest contributors to their pay gap is that new mums don’t progress up the career ladder, according to King’s College research. Yet only just over half of them include the leadership pipeline or revised maternity policies in their pay gap action plan. 

We know the gender pay gap widens when women have children. The average childbearing age for a British woman is 30, and the gender pay gap increases from 11.3 per cent to 23.4 per cent in the subsequent decade. This is often a time when a woman is thriving in her career and ready to move up to senior leadership. But too many talented employees get stuck in middle management when they have children. 

To close the pay gap, employers need to focus not just on retention but on progression for new parents. Becoming a parent is a time to re-evaluate personal and professional identities and make choices about the future. Often, individuals’ professional confidence is at rock bottom. 

What’s more, at least a quarter of the parents we work with say they were discouraged from progressing. They report that well-meaning line managers made statements such as ‘surely you want to concentrate on your baby now’ or assumed they didn’t want to apply for roles involving travel.

In my experience of working with leaders with young children, their ambition remains unchanged. When we advertised a programme of career acceleration to parents on maternity leave, we had four applications for each place. What does shift are the requirements for support from their employer. 

New parents want to continue to progress, but because line managers don’t encourage them during this critical period where they form a new vision for their career, many assume their employers don’t believe in their potential or aren’t willing to be flexible. 

So how do you shift the dial towards progression rather than just retention? First, start measuring the career progression of new parents. Second, ensure employees with new babies hear that managers believe in their potential, are interested in their progression and are willing to be flexible, even for senior roles. A good start is to run a baby-inclusive ‘keep in touch’ workshop focused on progression. 

Third, take data about career progression to your board and explore how culture and processes need to evolve. And finally, ensure that any maternity or paternity support includes career development interventions. That means career development rather than leadership development – it is about developing the capacity to get a more senior job rather than generic leadership skills. 

It’s important for organisations to welcome leaders with children as their whole selves so they can progress their career not in spite of their children but with them. 

The gender pay gap is complex, but it is clear that ensuring new mums in your business get promoted in the years after maternity leave is critical to closing it. By intentionally measuring and addressing the progression of new parents, we can change paradigms.

Verena Hefti is founder and CEO of Leaders Plus

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