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Opinion No one should have to choose between career and family

According to Platform 55′s Tracy Gunn, the workplace needs to adapt to modern families’ changing needs.

LAST MONDAY, AN email from a woman with two young children, aged two and four, landed in my inbox. Frustratingly, it contained the line, “I was told to choose either my career or my kids, that I couldn’t expect both.”

I’ve been supporting women returning from maternity leave for the past 10 years, yet we’re still talking about the same issues a decade later. In our work, we hear first hand the challenges faced by parents who are trying to balance their careers with family life.

We recently did a deep dive into female leadership, nine in ten (90%) women said that progressing in their careers was important to them. However, seven in ten (75%) said that being senior in the workplace isn’t compatible with being a parent, compared to just four in ten (45%) of men.

The requirement to report on Gender Pay Gaps has now been extended to companies with 150+ employees. There is an increased focus on employers to tangibly demonstrate what they are doing to close the pay gap and achieve gender equality across all levels.

Closing the gender pay gap is a complex issue with no one quick fix. One area that could make a marked difference is for employers to understand the impact of the Motherhood Penalty, which according to the World Economic Forum, accounts for 80% of the Gender Pay Gap. By supporting those trying to balance their career with family life, and actively encouraging dads to use leave entitlements and to ‘parent out loud’, organisations could start to shift the dial and accelerate progress.

Challenge stereotypes around flexible and part-time work

Flexible working options offer some degree of work-life balance, yet there’s often an unspoken rule that you can’t be part-time and committed to your career.

As one individual remarked recently, ‘asking for more flexibility is great personally, but professionally it’s career suicide.’

Progressing in your career still comes with an assumption that to get ahead you have to put in the hours, and nothing short of full-time is acceptable. This leaves many people, often women, unwilling to go to the next level of their careers because of the impact it will have on the quality of their family life.

What does this mean for the future of work?

Organisations that want to demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion need to create workplaces that support modern family life.

The way we all live, work and parent has changed. In today’s economic climate, most households are dual-income. Employees have higher expectations of the support their workplace will provide. Even legislation is evolving and organisations are having to move quickly to not just keep up to date, but to be viewed as an employer of choice.

Five in ten (55%) employees are already parents. At some point in their lives, eight in ten (80%) employees will have parenting or caring responsibilities.

Families come in all shapes and sizes. Not everyone is a parent, but everyone has something or someone important to them.

Employers who can create ‘nirvana’ — a workplace that enables individuals to balance career with family life, will not only win the war on talent but will also outperform their peers as they see more diversity at senior leadership levels.

What does this mean for employers?

A good place to start is ensuring you have the right policies. Policies that reflect the complexities of modern family life and support individuals through the moments that matter, from fertility, miscarriage and surrogacy, to equal parental leave and menopause.

But policies are only as good as the people implementing them. Managers are leading multi-generational, multi-cultural teams and are dealing with a wide range of challenges they often feel ill-equipped to deal with. Many say nothing at all when faced with a sensitive situation at work, for fear of getting it wrong. Equipping leaders with the skills and confidence to lead team members from modern families is imperative.

Attitudes and behaviours don’t always reflect how we live, work and parent. “I know I judge people who finish work at 5 o’clock on the dot. I shouldn’t, but I do” remarked one manager recently. We need to challenge outdated attitudes that measure people on the hours they work and move to a mindset where people are evaluated on their outputs.

In another recent report, nine in ten (92%) workers say they want flexible working options, yet half (50%) of companies are demanding more time spent in the office. There’s a real danger that those who work remotely will be overlooked. Managers need to be aware of the dangers of ‘proximity bias’; this is where the people we see most often, e.g. office-based, are favoured when it comes to promotion and opportunities.

If we want to create truly diverse workplaces, that are not only gender-balanced but inclusive for those who are neurodivergent or who have a disability, then the way we manage performance needs to be carefully considered.

Tracy Gunn is co-founder of Platform 55, a HR platform for employers that transforms how they support modern families at work with solutions for employees, leaders and HR.

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