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Is career equality for women just a myth? 15/08/2011

A recent survey by Women in Technology and Intellect entitled “Women’s Careers in Technology” has revealed that, four years on from the last study, women in the industry are still facing a glass ceiling.

Is career equality for women just a myth?

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  1. Barriers to career success for women still exist
  2. The limits of flexible working
  3. How can HR help women accelerate their careers?

Barriers to career success for women still exist

The results showed that, despite 61% of respondents having over 10 years’ experience in the sector, a mere 26% have reached senior management level. This indicates that the leaps towards equality that were optimistically predicted in our 2007 have not materialised.

This has led to many women feeling despondent about the future of equality. For example, a recent report by The Future Foundation and Friends Life revealed that 55% of respondents believe there will still be a significant pay gap between the sexes in 2020, while 53% think women will still be struggling much more than men to secure senior roles.
So what can businesses do to speed along a process in which many female professionals have lost faith?

The limits of flexible working

Even approaches that have proved most useful to new mothers have presented somewhat of a dilemma. For example, remote working is currently the most widely offered and popular option for new mothers returning to work. 80% of employers offer this and 71% of women use this facility, which allows them to stay in charge of their careers but to also be at home with a young child. Flexible working hours have also proved popular, but part-time work and job shares were both rejected by the majority of women. 

However, the comments from the study indicated that many women feel that, despite flexible and remote working being offered in theory, in practice it can be frowned upon to take it up. There can be a stigma around starting and leaving early and some have reported a negative effect on their careers.

One respondent said: “While flexible hours are a possibility it's not actively encouraged by management and seen as quite career limiting.” Another stated: “The company offers some flexibility but women taking up options of part time and flex type working undoubtedly suffer on the promotion stakes.  They simply don’t get the recognition.”

More alarmingly, though, many women do not trust their HR departments to be sympathetic when they are juggling an already difficult work-family balance. Several respondents commented further on this, for example: “HR is the worst for understanding the needs of women with families.  

In my experience, the HR departments were the least likely to support or innovate flexible policies for women in technology careers.” Recent statistics by Robert Half have indicated that, of the 180 HR directors questioned in their survey, 78% believed that men do not have an advantage over women in the workplace. This shows a shocking disparity between what HR professionals believe and what women on the ground are feeling. Perhaps this lack of communication or insight is part of the reason that women feel mistrustful of their HR departments?

How can HR help women accelerate their careers?

So does HR need to work on being more approachable, as well as ensuring that all initiatives or benefits offered by the company are properly implemented? Perhaps HR needs to be more proactive in removing the stigma that surrounds women when they take up the options that are rightfully available to them, creating a more sympathetic culture. Or maybe they just need to be more aware of the feeling among their female employees, and do more to show that they are working towards a solution between gender imbalance in the workplace. 

Finally, businesses can soften the impact of a long career break on women by implementing new paternity leave laws, which came into force in April. The legislation aims to help parents share childcare responsibilities, therefore ensuring that neither partner is away from their job for a long period of time. 

Employers must continue to provide women the facilities to help them achieve their career goals when they have children, and focus on creating a culture in which flexible working and better opportunities are readily available. Work must be an environment in which women are not penalised or held back for taking their full maternity leave and for accepting alternative working arrangements. If not, the pessimistic prediction that females will still be facing a glass ceiling in 2020 may well become a reality.

Maggie Berry, owner, Women In Technology

Maggie Berry, owner, Women In Technology

Maggie runs Women in Technology, a leading networking forum for women working in the technology profession in the UK