Women are ready for the top, but is the top ready for them?

8 March 2012

It’s that time of year again when we ponder the challenges of being a modern woman. This International Women’s Day we can finally say we have moved on from arguing about the value of women for UK Plc. This year the civil service can be proud of its current record of female permanent secretaries – eight at the last count. However there is still a long way to go before women reaching board level in government stops being such headline news.

Times have changed, but still the path is not clear for women in more junior and middle management levels of government and for some who have spoken out such as Ursula Brennan and Helen Ghosh, there is more to their success story than simply creating the positions for them.

That is why the EU Commissioners are wrong when they say the answer is enforced quotas for UK companies. Lord Davies of Abersoch is right to disagree with this, but I think sadly, no-one has fully understood exactly why they won’t work and what the real issues are that must be tackled.

Has anyone considered that women may not want to reach the top because they may feel the top wouldn’t value them?

Women won’t want to go to the top because of a quota – it may even put them off. They will however make a decision based on whether the top is ready for them. Today’s modern woman has more than the single goal of making it to the board table. For mothers, this is especially so. For them, a number of factors have to come together before it is even a possibility and many won’t make it until they have completed the early years of motherhood.

I will give you an example. Many of my colleagues in the Civil Service agree that their future success depends on 3 lifelines:

1. Understanding partner/good support network (to allow you to totally exploit all goodwill)
2. Good quality reliable and affordable childcare (harder than it sounds)
3. Good employer (flexible working hours)

If one of these flimsy lifelines should fail, their whole journey up the ladder could too. Quotas fail to recognise this. Employers often fail to recognise this. In Norway quotas have to a large extent only been a success because of the excellent childcare.

The corporate approach to bringing young women into organisations and keeping them is still hit and miss in the UK, especially if they become mothers along the way. This, despite such progress at permanent secretary level, is also true in Whitehall and leaves some of my very capable female colleagues wondering if the top is worth it, even if the door was wide open.

A colleague of mine recently accepted a senior civil service promotion in the Home Office on a four day week – progress. But on her ‘day off’ she has a baby on her lap and the phone to her ear all day, such is the pressure of the job. Despite a decent increase in female senior civil servants, government departments have yet to master how to ensure women don’t just give up.

Many of the female ministers and women I worked for in government were sympathetic when I had to run for the 5pm train to save my child from abandonment syndrome. Male ministers and their special advisers however would regularly schedule last minute ‘urgent’ meetings, that were not urgent, at 6pm and sooner or later, after a few no-shows, it was easy to find yourself out of the loop.

It is clear PM’s too have struggled to demonstrate the value of women in the workplace. Despite the symbolic Blair babes photoshoot in 1997, his first cabinet included only five women, none of whom had young children. Despite the increase in female MPs in this election, fewer than 20% of the Cabinet is female. At the most senior level of government, eight European countries have a cabinet (or council of ministers) that includes at least 40% of each gender. Our report about candidate selection highlighted some of the challenges in the UK.

Junior ministers and would-be MPs will never make it to the top if we don’t accept that there is still inequality of responsibility in the home and a lack of understanding in the workplace. Women are still mostly responsible for organising nannies, play dates, nutrition and clothing, homework and school projects, caring for other family members as well as their own careers – albeit with supporting husbands and partners. Their career to the top takes time, sacrifice and good resources. Our IfG report on candidate selection showed how true this was for would-be MPs.

Women are multi-taskers, but can they really do it all, get to the top and stay there? Yes, I say, but first we need to take a serious look at the top and ask, is the top ready for us?

Further information

Female permanent secretaries

Una O’Brien, Department of Health
Moira Wallace, Department of Energy and Climate Change
Bronwyn Hill, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lin Homer, HM Revenue and Customs
Dame Helen Ghosh, Home Office
Ursula Brennan, Ministry of Defence
Jil Matheson, UK Statistics Authority
Dame Gillian Morgan, Welsh Assembly Government

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Comments (4)

  1. Emma Thwaites on 9 March 2012 at 11:01 am

    This rings true but the point is largely an economic one. For many women (and some men) at the middle-management stage, the cost of childcare and extra help at home makes working harder and getting further impossible. By the time they are ready again to work at the intensity that promotion requires, the moment has passed. I know many bright, talented women who outshine those in more senior roles but who have been unable to make career progression work whilst bringing up their children. The only solution is to run fast, move up the ladder at lightening speed and make sure that by the time the children come along you can afford to pay someone else to take care of them. A rethink is long overdue. Truly affordable, accessible childcare and flexible working practices will go a long way to ensuring that ambitious, talented and economically productive parents are not barred from the boardroom.

  2. Abi Pope on 10 March 2012 at 12:13 pm

    Absolutely agree Nadine, and those of us without all three lifelines in place will find it difficult, if not impossible, to progress. I know many mothers working at the centre of government who are earning less than their childcare costs but recognise that is the only way to move their career on during those early years. I think generally there is a resigned acceptance that we can’t have it all- but not everyone wants to have children only to pay someone else to look after them 24/7. The centre needs to walk the talk on flexible working…

  3. Rachel on 13 March 2012 at 8:53 pm

    The issue is also linked to (largely male) expectations. I have two young children and a very supportive husband who takes on the vast majority of childcare. I therefore have all three lifelines in place. However, I leave before my children are awake and in order to be home with some time to interact before bedtime, I have to leave the office by 5 at the very latest. Whilst very good at organising my own diary, am very conscious of ‘never’ being at my desk (when actually it’s 5.30) and ‘never’ being around for 6 pm meetings. Not only are the three lifelines required and people walking the talk, there is also a need to leave egos and ‘being seen’ behind when it comes to judging effectiveness and delivery. At best I see my children three times a week excluding weekends – just not good enough and certainly the promotion benefits are not worth it.

  4. Julie on 19 March 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Absolutely agree. All these lifelines are certainly required but it is so sad that big organizations still do not have flexible times in place for working mums. I only do 3 days a week and most of my salary is towards childcare. It is very difficult for women to make that decision to go back to work if their whole salary is just paying for someone else to look after their children. When women do go back to work, it is very difficult to get their confidence back, working to a level that their company is used to and expects. As well as that, dealing with the guilt about going back to work, missing their children’s learning and growing development and explaining to your children why you have gone back to work. I am sure it gets easier when the children get older and childcare costs are lower but the need to have flexible working and affordable childcare costs is something that needs to be looked at urgently…….

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