The reason? Leaving the workplace for a couple of years means the loss of a valuable client base and sacrificing motherhood guarantees that women can equal, or even outperform, the career success of their male counterparts.
Would that things were so simple. In the UK, women now make up 55% of undergraduates in the UK and 58% of graduates within OECD member states, according to The Economist, and a high proportion will set their sights on a career in business and finance. Even if withdrawing from motherhood offered the magic wand that Farage imagines, is it something that we would willingly visit on women and their families? The one-child policy in China has caused pain enough without denying women and their families the chance of progeny. A successful career would come at a terrible price.
Equally important, remaining childless may not even have the desired effect. Research in the UK by Jackson and Hirsh back in the 1990s established that the slow-down in women’s careers relative to men’s started early on in their careers, long before children were even on their radar. The academics went on to attribute the set-backs in women’s careers to factors such as unconscious discrimination, operating through implicitly male role models, explicitly 'male' selection criteria and subjective assessment methods.
Unconscious bias: a thing of the past?
Regrettably not. My own research over the last 10 years backs up their identification of unconscious discrimination as a major culprit. In one study, the leadership competences for a senior position were written in the female-friendly and performance-enhancing ‘transformational’ style but the pool of interviewers, nearly all male, replaced these mentally with ‘transactional’ competences, flagged up in many studies as particularly appealing to men. The irony is that these ‘male selection criteria’ are not only obstacles to women but also to higher levels of productivity, and careful attention to selection criteria would not only ease things for women but also boost productivity.
Structural factors are also key and all the evidence suggests that flexible working patterns yield benefits in terms of female retention as well as employee engagement and productivity. Once again, introducing measures to satisfy women will also boost organisational performance.
Instead of consigning some of our brightest women to a childless future, and depriving the country of children from homes with able mothers, it would make sense for workplaces to adapt themselves to a world in which over 55% of graduates are women.
So, workplaces hoping to capture the best talent should introduce flexible working and take a hard look at role models, selection criteria and assessment methods.
Organisations would quickly find that they were solving two problems in one: increased diversity - with all the attendant gains to organisations and increasing productivity – and increased career opportunities for women.
As Churchill said, ‘All the great things are simple’ and using best practice HRM can go a long way in cracking the glass ceiling.
Gloria Moss is professor of management and marketing at Bucks New University and Visiting Professor at ESG, Paris. She is a fellow of the CIPD and the author of several books.