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How Flexible Working Hours Can Keep Women In Top Jobs

As young women in the United Kingdom conclude their studies and begin their careers, they represent a solid half of all bourgeoning professionals. And yet, as you trace the career ladder upwards – to more senior or executive roles – the male-female ratio in the workplace skews sharply. The result: only 9.6% of executive director roles in the UK's FTSE 100 are filled by women.

This is not a revelation. In the last decade, the lack of women in top corporate jobs has attracted attention from businesses, politicians and media – shedding light on gross discrepancies, especially in the financial sector. A survey conducted by the Financial Times last year found that just 19.5% of senior roles across top City employers were held by women. "Sexism and The City," read the headline.

The tone of the conversation around this issue is changing, however. Propelling women towards senior positions and keeping them there is now more than just an equality issue or a HR necessity, but also being recognised as a key driver of business. Studies by the human resources consulting firm DDI show that increasing the number of women in leadership positions improves financial performance, productivity and motivation. Further, women leaders act as strong roles models for junior women keen to progress. Why has it taken so long for some people to wake up to this?

Luckily, these statistics are actually being heard, and producing tangible initiatives for change. At HSBC, they aim to have half of their 5,500 senior manager roles in the UK filled by women by 2020, and similar goals have been set at Lloyds Banking Group and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

There is a real appetite for change now that wasn’t there ten years ago

Sam Smethers, Chief Executive, The Fawcett Society
In an interview with Sam Smethers, the Chief Executive of The Fawcett Society, which is the UK’s leading women’s rights and gender equality charity, she talked to Refinery29 about the lack of women in senior roles; "It’s a complex picture, but one thing that is absolutely clear is that there is a real appetite for change now that wasn’t there ten years ago. There is more intolerance to it."

A lot of the structural inequality that still exists is based on the primary challenge most women face at some point in their working lives: balancing familial responsibilities and a full professional life. As careers progress, higher positions often demand more time at the office, increased travel and higher expectations to be active on email after the working day is done. Something that is hard to balance with childcare.

These are cultural realities that are unlikely to change any time soon. That said, the argument to allow professionals more flexible working environments to help accommodate some of these demands has been made, and we have seen improvement. In June 2014, legislation in the UK changed, allowing any employee to request flexible working as long as they have been employed for more than 26 weeks – regardless of their familial status or age of their children. The employer doesn't have to say yes – but, we all have the right to ask.

In parallel with that, the rise of start-up culture, digital fluency and the ability to work remotely through improvements in technology has normalised flexible working for employees across genders. It’s no longer uncommon for a team to be de-centralised across the globe and for remote colleagues to be valued members of a professional team. These changes present an enormous boon for women who want to have a career and a family – especially since those priorities often fall in the same set of years.
Romanie Thomas, founder of the start-up Juggle Jobs, is a former recruiter who saw women dropping off at the top level, mostly for family reasons, and having few options to find flexible or part time senior roles during family rearing years. As a response, she founded Juggle Jobs, an online marketplace that matches businesses with mid- to senior-level professionals on a flexible basis.

As a recruiter, Romanie observed that companies often sought gender diversity at the top, but were presented with a narrow pool of candidates. "For most recruitment firms," she said, "if they have to map out one hundred candidates for a job, and it would take them twice as long to find an equal distribution of men and women, it would not be in their interest to push the issue."

But then, in interacting with clients on their needs for C level and VP roles, companies always brought up the issue of gender imbalance. Romanie began to present the idea of a senior candidate working flexibly and generally found that companies were open to it. "I saw lots of senior professional women falling out of the workplace and lots of companies needing them and figured there must be a way to connect the dots."

Providing flexible senior roles is an especially important niche. There is less incentive for a woman to return to work if her role has regressed during the time that she has taken off. "One of the things for women coming back into the workplace, despite having been extremely qualified, is confidence," Romanie says. "How do I get back in when I’m swimming against the tide?’ We're trying to create an avenue for women to stay in senior roles, so that if and when they are ready to go back to work full time, they are well positioned to re-enter leadership positions.

In addition to Juggle Jobs, a handful of consulting firms and internal human resource departments have been put to task to implement flexible working policies. For these companies, the goal is to create an environment in which both men and women feel comfortable adjusting their working hours and schedules to accommodate familial responsibilities – and to ensure that in doing so, they are still considered a valued asset to their professional team.

Achieving gender parity in senior professional roles is undoubtedly a long-term game. Professional culture and structure has not historically lent itself to women reaching leadership positions and many of those challenges remain intact. That said, the conversation is alive, the doors are opening and companies led by a fleet of men are increasingly under scrutiny.

This is an essential moment for women coming of age in their careers in the UK. There are more and more tools available to help them maintain professional momentum and to lead a shift in workplace gender imbalance. But it’s up to young women to take advantage of these changing cultural norms and to demand what they need from their employers in order to stay at work and achieve their goals on their own terms.