The Barriers To The Boardroom For Working Mothers

The Barriers To The Boardroom For Working Mothers

Companies could better integrate work with the practicalities of child rearing and therefore benefit from the experience and skills of highly intelligent, boardroom material women.

There are lots of reasons that there are not enough women on boards and there is often discussion about whether we should have enforced equality on boards by having minimum female level requirements (positive discrimination).

It seems clear to me that you can only have genuine equality at board level if, in that same business, there is gender balance throughout the organisation. The idea of forcing boards to have gender equality at board level when they are generally unbalanced at senior and junior management level terrifies me. I imagine board position interviews with the directors saying “well she isn’t ideal but she is the best woman we have in front of us so we had better give her the board position”. And if “she” isn’t really up to it, or there were better male candidates, it’s only a matter of time before even the most ‘pro’ does a swift u-turn on positive discrimination and negativity rears its head among all board members (including the newly appointed woman). The selected candidate is unlikely to be respected or respect herself – she’ll be forever uncertain as to whether she got the job because she’s female (and she’d be right). A lose-lose situation.

In order to have ‘fair’ gender equality at board level, companies need to have nurtured their female talent all the way up the organisation. So where does this start? Does it start with employment? I think it might even start even further back with a look at sustainability of location.

There are lots of reasons that women drift away from companies but the main one is maternity. For my friends, I notice this has often been because the job they had before children was ultimately subsequently unsustainable, for reasons that they would not have predicted or understood ‘BK’ (Before Kids).

This is Lizzie’s story

My friend Lizzie is now in her early 40s with 2 young kids. She has finished having babies. She is very clever – she was an Oxford graduate and real high flier in her career before maternity. She had decided to be an accountant and quickly got snapped up by a leading London firm. She passed her exams with flying colours and had a great early career doing exciting work. She lived in London and after meeting the right bloke, she moved a little way out of London because she didn’t like the idea of bringing up kids in the city. So she commuted and her journey now took her 1.25 hours each way. This was fine – they both fitted into the “dinky” stereotype after all. She worked long hours and was doing well.

When babies came along she took a year of maternity leave. Then went back to work on a part-time basis 3 days per week. This was a challenge. Even though her company had been able to accommodate part-time work, that long commute that had seemed fine before suddenly meant that to be at work for the right hours, she couldn’t drop her baby at nursery herself and neither could she be home in time to bathe her baby and put him to bed. The career lifestyle that had seemed so great was clearly unsustainable for her. When she had her second baby, she decided to give up work completely as however important her career was to her, family came first.

3 years later she was ready to work again. Realising that her previous high-flying accountancy life had been unsustainable, she looked for a more local alternative. So she finally found a local firm that she could work for on a part-time basis. It was challenging because she found the work, teams and attitudes of the regional companies she visited very different to her previous London life. The lifestyle was gentler, quite cliquey and rather old-fashioned. To say that her career has taken a step down would be an understatement. Unfortunately she found the work boring and unchallenging. Pay was a lot less than she had been used to but at least she didn’t have to commute – she could work 3 days a week and still drop her little ones at nursery/school and bath them and put them to bed.

But was this new local lifestyle sustainable for Lizzie? No – not really. She was hugely undervalued at work because the local company have a rather ‘regional’ attitude and aren’t really used to people like Lizzie. She did brilliantly at work. She expressed that she’d love to do some more interesting tax work so the company put her through the relevant training course. She received the highest marks on this course in the entire country. So when she then asked her boss if she could now please therefore start doing that tax work, he said no – because he had 2 other people who were first in the queue to do this more interesting work. Lizzie left.

She says she is thinking about starting her own business now as a tax consultant but I’m not sure, if I’m honest, that Lizzie is really an entrepreneur. The whole thing is a bit of a mess and just feels like such a waste for everybody just for the sake of location and commutability.

When I think about Lizzie’s story I imagine how her life might have been if she had been able to have a sustainable lifestyle at her original London job. I suspect that she would have kept on climbing up the career ladder and have felt very fulfilled at work. I suspect that she would have been promoted at least twice more by now. She would be doing interesting work and perhaps slowly working her way towards the board.

Lizzie is a great woman with interesting opinions. Bringing up her family has made her even stronger and more organised than before. She would have been good on that board, but I don’t expect she will get there now. And in a few years time even if she wanted to start doing that commute again, it might be too late – she would have been left behind in the career stakes and is unlikely to want to sit at the same level as much younger men who haven’t taken a career break.

What would have made her lifestyle more sustainable?

  • Location (if her company is based in the city and she lives too far away, changing employment for a commute that takes less than half an hour)
  • Hours (if her company can’t reduce her hours such that the longer city commute still means she can give her babies breakfast and put them to bed each day)
  • Money (it has to be worth it – if the above means that she can only work a 5 hour day, is this going to pay enough to be worth all the hassle? And of course can the company really get good work out of somebody for such short stretches?).

Of course Lizzie could have stayed living in London but I don’t think many people would consider central London to be a great place to bring up kids.

So how about that local accountancy firm?

  • That new lifestyle might have been sustainable for her if they had a different, faster paced and expert approach to accountancy. If the local firm approached their business that way they might also be doing better so is there something to be learned there too?

Could her original London company have employed differently? Could they have interrogated her about whether she thought London would have been a good place to bring up kids simply so they could have more likelihood of having chosen somebody who might stay throughout maternity? No of course they couldn’t – it wouldn’t have been legal either!

Everybody talks about flexible working time and how the ability to work from home more would help, but not much of Lizzie’s type of work can really be done from home. Also as you progress up the ranks, more senior jobs are even harder to succeed with at home. Management and Leadership are very difficult to do remotely even with all the advances of modern technology.

But what if her huge London accountancy company could have a branch or two somewhere else – somewhere that a lifestyle is more sustainable for family lifesomewhere that she could be a great accountant and grow from there? Somewhere where women (or family men) really can ‘have it all’ – where they can live half an hour or less away without being in a city centrewhere they might even be able to have a crèche/nursery on site? What if they can continue their careers without feeling as though they are letting either their kids or their careers down? Where the company could properly look after its employees with families better, thus nurturing real equality which will ultimately fall into the board room?

There are some companies who are big enough to consider something like this – and there are so many advantages for the companies too. They can still have their main centre in the city but could pay a lot less rent elsewhere for these other branches which are specifically put in place for families. And of course these family branches would have the same high level of professional expectation as their central offices.

If we really want gender equality, perhaps we need to start with thinking about families in general (whether male or female run) and really change the entire structure of the businesses in this way.

Furthermore, why are regional companies often so much less inspiring/interesting for workers? There are lots of reasons but I also wonder if we could work on this too. If that accountancy firm in the small town was a more interesting and progressive company and employer they would not have lost Lizzie and she could have been working herself towards the board there instead. I think that many regional companies need some kind of drive given to them – how can we make that happen? Do they need some guidance in order to keep up with the career offerings of City centre popular employers? How do we work at changing the status quo?

Now that the spotlight is on the glass ceiling, we have a perfect opportunity to embrace a holistic approach to the welfare of employees, particularly focusing on the family rearing period as a starting point. If we can crack this and keep hold of key talent through these vital years, enlightened employers, staff and communities will reap the long-term benefits.

About the author


Harriet Kelsall

Harriet Kelsall founded the eponymous Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery in 1998. It is now one of the UK’s leading bespoke jewellery design companies. In 2014, Harriet was chosen by the IoD Director magazine for its shortlist of ‘Women who have most changed the business world’. In 2015, HK Bespoke was shortlisted for both the BITC Santander Responsible Small Business Award and Ethical Jeweller of the Year in the National Jewellery Awards. With a predominantly female team (including at top management level), Harriet speaks passionately about equality in the workplace and hopes to help the business community remember issues such as maternity solutions for female entrepreneurs.

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