In 2005 the Harvard Business Review published an article under Career Planning titled Off-Ramps and On-Ramps – Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce.
At the time the article stimulated great debate and discussion, both in the US and the UK, around the reasons women were ‘opting out’ of long-term career progression and how to change this. A flurry of gender diversity programs were quickly released as corporations worked to stymie any chance of being perceived as unfriendly to working women.
Fast forward a decade and one could be forgiven for thinking this article was published in 2015. The rise of women to top echelons of power has been stubbornly slow, and the incidence of women working part-time or taking a career break in the UK has remained as engendered as ever.
With the advent of the Lord Davie’s reports and targets of 25% of Women on Boards being reached, it would be easy for corporations to feel some complacency around gender diversity or to relegate the responsibilities of change to Diversity practitioners alone. Alternatively many corporations have been tempted to release ambitious targets for increasing gender diversity at senior levels within their business. Targets are a preferred route of intervention over quotas, as it enables businesses to work on a basis of meritocracy. But one can’t help feeling slightly skeptical over these new targets, in the absence of real cultural change around flexible working and the creation of high quality part-time opportunities.
Most women’s careers follow a non-linear career path, yet the path to the C-Suite still remains stubbornly fixated on talent whose careers have followed a linear trajectory. It just so happens that these key years for establishing oneself as a genuine C-Suite / Partnership contender also coincide with the prime years for women launching a family. During this period of life women often find themselves working in inflexible, presenteeism cultures; making it impossible for them to thrive whilst bearing the majority of responsibility on the home front. These workplace cultures exist today despite the introduction of flexible working policies in many organisations. Other women find themselves in well-meaning organisations who offer them a part-time / reduced schedule position to factor in life responsibilities. Unfortunately these opportunities often come with an assumption that she is no longer interested in progression and women often find themselves overlooked for challenging career-enhancing assignments. Many then leave due to under-stimulation and a lack of foreseeable career progression.
It is far too easy to conclude from these examples that the net result of women not progressing to the upper levels of seniority is either A) the result of men not wanting to give up power, or B) the result of women not being ambitious. Such base level analysis ignores the fact that we are all individuals operating with our own agendas. Today’s male and female graduates enter the workplace with equal measure of ambition. It hardly seems fair, or meritocratic, for a future male to miss out on promotion to a lesser candidate so a corporation can reach a publicized gender target. Nor does it seem fair if a future female is side-lined from career opportunity due to the need for flexible working, or reduced hours, for a period of time. And it is only a period of time. Much research confirms the fact that as children age women are more able to return to a full-time, full load work schedule. Unfortunately for many, by the time this happens their skills have been left undeveloped and they are no longer viewed as potential leadership material. And those that took a career-break find that the ability to re-enter the workforce is far more cumbersome than imagined.
All CEO’s will tell you that talented staff is what makes or breaks an organization. Yet a decade later we find ourselves in a position where very little has changed on how to harness female talent over the whole life-cycle of their career. The issue becomes even more crucial with the staggering statistics on women’s qualification levels; half of the UK’s young women hold a university level degree, with a projected 50% of ALL women in the UK holding a university degree by 2020. In addition 56% of 1st class honors degrees in 2013/2014 were awarded to women.
Companies that find genuinely unique and forward thinking ways to attract, retain and engage the female talent pool will experience a distinct competitive advantage. And with an estimated global skills shortage of 40 million by 2020 (as predicted by McKinsey) the question is:
Why would you not?