The loss of female talent through maternity leave and the subsequent demands of family life is the key issue to address in order to achieve boardroom equality, and reap the talent of half the workforce for British companies.
Last years' Female FTSE Board report highlighted the need for organisational flexibility to enable both men and women to work around parenting. Yet, only 17% of women who don't return to work after maternity leave are staying away out of choice.
Women are more likely to return to employment if there are flexible working and childcare help arrangements are in their workplace, but, another 16% of new mothers change jobs, mostly because they cannot access part-time or flexible work. The issue is crucial to productivity and innovation in British firms. Yet, employers still feel that part time working is a loss for them.
Recent research confirms that children benefit when their mothers work, but the demands of family life go way beyond breastfeeding and the pre-school years which employers and media focus on, and many jobs don't pay enough to cover full time childcare. Besides, most parents want to actually parent.
As mental health in youth becomes a hot topic, our work culture persists in ignoring the problems. Even the best paid parents at the highest level of their professions know that no matter what their financial resources, their parental roles cannot be totally outsourced effectively. In a two parent home that usually means one parent prioritises home and children, and presently that is predominantly women (although an increasing number of fathers are doing it). In a single parent home that means sacrifices and herculean efforts.
Women who sacrifice their work for the kids do so with heavy hearts. Most try to do both for as long as they can and only give up because the demands become unworkable. Perceptions of women at work change after motherhood and many feel challenged to 'prove' that they have not lost their commitment. They feel that they cannot be themselves in a corporate culture that ignores or airbrushes motherhood and that somehow they have to hide or minimise their family pressures and commitments. This leads to a souring of relations, and ultimately dissatisfaction on both sides that leads to women quitting.
The resulting under-employment, particularly of highly skilled women and graduates is a deadweight loss. The refrain, "I just want something two to three days", is familiar to employers, but matching that desire to employers requirement for flexibility has seemed impossible: despite large numbers involved, the recruitment industry has not responded well.
There are some high-profile agencies which champion flexible work, but none, until now, have dealt only with mothers, and few have made a virtue of parenthood. Instead, jobs mothers want are hard to find; executive search and recruiters fees are based on a percentage of final salary - naturally lower for a part time position - so why bother? On large "post and prey" jobs boards mothers applying for positions are disadvantaged against other candidates who do not have time constraints.
Highly skilled, professionally qualified, and experienced, mothers at all levels have number of wishes about the kind of work they do while parenting. We know because we talk to them all the time. They want work that is challenging and uses their skills, they want to pick up the children from school sometimes, and they want to be able to spend a considerable amount of the long holidays with their children. They understand that working in such a way affects career progression, but they also know that productivity is not a 9-5 game, and they are willing to be more dedicated and flexible than employers expect.
There are huge advantages to being open about your status as a part-time working mother. If you are hired explicitly on that basis everybody's expectations are met. People know convenient times to arrange meetings or activities. Colleagues enjoy working with someone who is fulfilled and honest about their limitations. Mothers have the freedom to exceed expectations, rather than hiding childcare worries and playing commitment games. At 2to3days.com we only put mothers who want to work part time in touch with employers who want mothers. The results are life changing for both parties.
Recruiting working mothers is not the great challenge for employers in achieving equality in the workplace, it is the great opportunity. By having effective women who openly work hours around their family commitments as part of workplace life we can unpick the kind of damaging working hours commitment culture which has turned them, and others, away. If we are all honest about our real life commitments at work we can be more honest about the things that affect our performance and so improve our productivity and creativity.