The Resolution Foundation’s report yesterday on the gender pay gap shows progress for young women graduates, but makes for depressing reading for women approaching their 30s. The pay gap for women in their 30s and 40s has hardly changed in a generation.
The report concludes that having children has a “sharp and long-lasting” effect on salary in the long run. Industries such as financial services that are looking to attract and retain women must realise the damage this could do.
A report on women in financial services last summer by management consultants Oliver Wyman bore similar conclusions – it showed that significant investment and initiatives to recruit women into the sector don’t yet translate into greater gender balance later on. Crucially, we see aspirations falling about five years into a career.
This shouldn’t be surprising – that is when career and life choices become acute for professional women. Expectations increase from employers at the same time as decisions about family life become starker.
However, change is possible. Organisations could be more open and transparent about the realities of balancing career and family. Women are still primary carers both for children and older relatives. It can be hard to have an open conversation about job aspirations when work and home are still seen as a binary choice. If employers are serious about wanting to retain women, helping them plan earlier for the longer term, and identifying – without judgement – where flexibility is needed, is important.
Childcare remains a tremendous hurdle. No parent will be entirely happy with returning to work if they’re worrying about their children, but this doesn’t just mean having somewhere to safely “park” them. If parents are reassured children are being properly looked after in a stimulating environment, some of the guilt factor may be alleviated.
Cost is also a key issue in the UK. Obviously few organisations can provide a crèche service, but ensuring parents know how to make the most of childcare benefits, vouchers and other schemes will be worth a lot.
Buy-in from men is also vital. The UK introduced Shared Parental Leave in April 2015, but research has found that only a tiny percentage of men have used it so far. Women’s expectations from their career have changed dramatically, but cultural attitudes to gender roles – especially around care-giving – persist. The infrastructure for flexible working exists, but until it is used by everyone the stigma will remain.
“Success” in gender equality often focuses at the top – the board or executive committee. There are clearly some superb female business leaders who balance demanding, successful careers with a fulfilling family life, but they could be as daunting as they are helpful. For many younger professionals, near-peer role models, demonstrating what a successful career looks like two or five years down the line, may prove more helpful, and organisations should work to make these women (and men balancing career and family) visible.
Our Prime Minister has said she wants “a Britain that works for everyone”. Her predecessor pledged to end the gender pay gap in a generation. It is great that we are making some progress, especially in the City, but unless we address these real issues it will take a lot longer than that.