by Susanna Whawell —
Recent changes in legislation and statute on both sides of the Atlantic have focused attention on the female talent pipeline. A raft of research evidence demonstrates that having a greater degree of gender equality in organisations brings numerous benefits. To this end, several studies have been undertaken highlighting the importance of establishing and nurturing the female talent pipeline.
However, a less obvious but equally critical issue, is leakage from the female talent pipeline. Often expressed as ‘off-ramping’, loss of skilled female talent from mid-level and senior posts creates noticeable shortages from a female talent pool. It raises the question of whether we should be looking more carefully at loss during the pipeline, as well as promoting the importance of equality in all of its forms in senior roles.
Several studies have examined the underlying causes of ‘off ramping’, with research suggesting that for women in particular off ramping is multifaceted in nature. It is not simply a case of a job being untenable, but a blurring of the boundaries between personal and professional expectations unique to women in their career trajectories. A situation invariably borne by women because of societal reinforcement of the view that caring responsibilities and domestic management are ‘women’s work’ no matter how senior the woman in question, and no matter how much their partners may wish to help them.
Most people now agree that the boundaries between work and personal life have become irreconcilably blurred. Our ‘always on’ culture makes it very difficult to say no, something women in particular are known to struggle with, in the pursuit of feeling that they need to be perceived as good at everything.
If everything ultimately collides, such as the timing of reaching peak career opportunity, with elder care needs, and supporting children into young adulthood, women can find that they have little or no support from their employer - a form of benign neglect if you will. Organisations are then surprised to find their key talent has little to no energy left for work. Forced to prioritise, women, societally inured to bearing the brunt of caring responsibility, choose - albeit very reluctantly – to off-ramp.
A simple solution for organisations that care about sustaining a female pipeline is to recognise the genuine need for flexibility in the workplace. For many, the mere act of recognising that real and sincere support is available in the workplace is enough. It seems so strange that organisations will spend thousands on recruiting and training highly talented women only to allow them to slip through the net for a lack of awareness of the pressures that they face.
Arguably, if organisations wish to keep their talent, male or female, a recognition of the human aspects of a long career is vital. Potentially, this would also help raise awareness of our shifting societal priorities, and increase the social acceptance of men bearing a greater proportion of caring responsibility in order to help balance the workload. This would be a much closer reflection of gender equality, helping men to better understand the pressures that their female colleagues face, and structuring organisational policies and strategies around a far more realistic reflection of life course and changing social trends.
Susanna Whawell is the founding director of Auxilium Group has a protean career - part business, part academic, and part third sector. Her research explores the career trajectories of senior female executives and the role of organisational culture in supporting equality.
Follow Susanna on Twitter at @SusannaWhawell