Alison’s essay entry for the 2021 Women in Leadership competition

“The number of women on the boards of top companies overall remains far below 50%, and few make it to CEO. How can organisations, policymakers and individuals encourage greater female participation at the top?”

It’s not women’s careers that need fixing—it’s men’s.

It took a global pandemic for my friend, a director in a City business, to realise what he’d been missing out on. “I’ve finally got to know my son,” he said when I asked if he saw any positives of the last year. “Jack didn’t use to like me much—isn’t that right Jack?” Yes, his son replied with the brutal honesty only toddlers get away with. He simply never really saw his son until he was forced to stay at home. Instead of disappearing at 6am on a lengthy commute, he’s been around for morning cuddles, playtime in between meetings, and bedtime stories. To his surprise, he enjoyed it. This was a man who opted to return to work after just one week of paternity leave. 

It might seem odd to answer a question about improving female representation at board level by talking about men. But, as we’ve belatedly begun to recognise with the recent discussion around women’s safety, it won’t be solved unless we look at men’s careers too. 

A few assumptions: First, that companies today aren’t irredeemably sexist—most actively invest in mentoring, flexible working, and training to remove women’s roadblocks to the top. All but the most backward want more diversity in their senior leadership teams and recognise the benefits it generates. Second, that while companies are trying harder, and have been for many years, progress is slow. There’s still a dearth of female candidates when companies are looking to promote and appoint women to senior positions; the talent pipeline has a crack in it that leaks women. Third, the biggest crack in the pipeline is motherhood and the toll it takes on women’s careers, despite efforts to counteract it. 

Although not the only barrier women face, parenthood has a far greater impact on women’s careers than on men’s. The majority of women take time out from their careers to start a family, and often re-join part-time and/or flexibly while children are small. Men overwhelmingly do not. Understandably, company policies have focused on making the lot of working mothers easier. While welcome, it hasn’t done much to help women rise through organisations. Instead, they face a slower, harder path to the top, so well-recognised we even have a name for it—the motherhood penalty. Exhausted by the twin burdens of care and career, many women see the odds are stacked against them and expend their energy trying to find a balance rather than fighting their way up the corporate ladder. 

So perhaps rather than continuing trying to ‘fix the women’, we should be fixing the shape of men’s careers specifically around parenthood. Currently, only 2% of new parents split their parental leave in the UK. Even the best-intentioned couples find themselves up against financial and cultural penalties if they do share their leave (I’m half of one of them), and the gender pay gap only widens from this point. 

The first step is for organisations to make paternity leave as financially attractive as maternity leave—otherwise it will remain an indulgence that few can practically afford. Many organisations offer generous maternity pay, but negligible paternity compensation. It should be just as well paid. 

Second, organisations need to celebrate fathers that do take advantage of family-friendly policies. The importance of role models to women and other marginalised groups is well-known—it’s surely the same for men. A friend who works for an international investment bank took six weeks’ paternity leave after his boss took six weeks’ paternity leave. Now someone who works for him is taking the same. Without his manager setting the precedent, neither he nor his team member would have taken that time out. Maybe the next father in their team will ask for more time, seeing that it hasn’t torpedoed the careers of others. 

But how will companies pay for expanded paternity compensation, especially those cash-strapped from the pandemic? This is where policy makers come in. Just as it stepped in with a generous furlough scheme, the government should provide funds to level up parental leave. Yes, the cost will be huge, but so will the benefits. A McKinsey report estimates that $12tn could be added to global GDP if there were equality between the sexes; ironing out this particular inequality would deliver a slice of that. 

Lastly, individuals should use the pandemic as an opportunity to challenge norms. The sky hasn’t fallen in because people work from home, and companies have learned to deal better with flexible working as so many have had to juggle home-schooling with full-time jobs. My investment banker friend would never have dreamed of working from home or part-time before the pandemic—now he’s asking for both. “The worst they can say is no,” he says. Even if his company refuses, just asking the question chips away at assumptions about what a man’s career should look like. The more times a company has to refuse, the more it’ll realise it’s out of step with what many highly talented people want. 

This isn’t about slowing men’s careers down, but allowing them to rethink how work and life fit together. Unless we enable men to make different choices, women will continue to shoulder the burden of parenthood and face the slower, harder path to the top. And boardrooms will continue to reflect that. 

Alison is the Head of Client & Brand Insights at Source Global Research, runner-up of the 2021 Women in Leadership Scholarship competition, Executive MBA – Global student and mother to a lockdown baby. 

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