Sexism, politics, education & the City

28 January 2014

Last week, Nigel Farage expressed the sexist and outdated view that City women cannot "have it all" and need to make a choice between having a career or a family. He said that women who have children are worth less to their employer than women without children who can be as successful as men if they sacrifice a family life. On that basis, he refuted the idea that discrimination exists against women in the City.

Farage's view seems to be that women with a client base are worth far less to their employers if they have children and take two or three years leave and then return to work, because they will have lost their client connections and relationships. What tosh! In fact most professional working women do not take more than a year's maternity leave, because they then have no right to return to work for the same employer at all. The law provides that women who take ordinary maternity leave have the right to return to the same job and those who take additional maternity leave (up to a year) have the right to return to the same or a similar job.

Staying in touch with clients

Do women really lose their clients in that time?  Employers need to reallocate clients to the rest of the team when a colleague takes maternity leave, in order to ensure continuity of service to the client. However, most consider carefully how work is redistributed to women when they return to work after maternity leave. They need to ensure that they do not deprive these women of good quality work or prevent them from re-establishing client connections in order to avoid sex discrimination claims. Employers who encourage teams to share client contacts between them typically suffer less from loss of business when employees take maternity, parental leave or leave the business. They also engender a more collaborative team environment.

I often advise women to use their KIT (keeping in touch) days whilst on maternity leave to maintain contact with their client base, as well as with their employer and colleagues. For those in client facing roles, client relationships and the ability to generate business is as important as market knowledge and technical skills. These days it is also possible to stay connected with clients via social networking sites such as LinkedIn, and interestingly litigation is increasing regarding who owns an employee's client connections on such sites when employment is terminated.

Promotion on the basis of merit, not gender or parental commitments

The Institute of Education released a controversial report a fortnight ago which concluded that many able and well qualified women were under-promoted and underpaid at work. No surprises there! However, Dr Schuller, a former Head of Education Researcher at the Paris based organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, suggested that the problem can be addressed by men changing their career patterns too. I have been a proponent of this for some time now, however, I disagree strongly that “men need to stop thinking about a career only in terms of continuously moving up a vertical ladder and think positively about lateral moves, perhaps working part time …”

My personal view is that both men and women should be promoted on the basis of merit alone, their personal and family circumstances should not be a factor in the equation. I disagree that men with family and childcare commitments should be encouraged to take sideway moves in their careers. The fact that they may want to work flexibly to spend more time with their children and help with domestic responsibilities should not stop them from climbing the career ladder. Why should the fact that they have childcare commitments prevent them from being promoted, if they are good at their job and worthy of promotion? In my view, this will only encourage a workplace culture of discrimination against working parents, which is bad news for both working mothers and working fathers.

Changes to fathers’ workplace rights

So what about men who want to be more hands on with their children and pursue a successful career at the same time? Presumably Mr Farage's views will extend to them too, particularly as fathers' workplace rights are increasing. A system of shared parental leave is due to come into force in April 2015. From two weeks after the child's birth, fathers will be able to share the remainder of the mother's maternity leave with her. This will be particularly attractive for men whose partners are an equal or the main breadwinner in their family and there are an increasing number of such professional women in the City.

So far fathers, especially those working in the City and in financial services, have been reluctant to take up their family friendly rights, because of fears that doing so will hinder their career progression, prospects and adversely affect their salary and bonus potential. In 2012, only 17% of working fathers requested flexible working, compared to 28% of working mothers according to statistics from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Creating a level playing field

My strong view is that there will only ever be a level playing field for professional mothers and fathers in the workplace when more men take up their parental rights, so that employers genuinely believe that there is as much chance of a father taking six or more months shared parental leave when his child is born, as the mother taking ordinary or additional maternity leave or a father requesting a flexible working pattern when they return to work as the mother.

Of those fathers brave enough to request flexible working, one in five had his request denied compared to one in ten working mothers in 2012. The City may take longer to change on that front than the wider employment landscape. Outdated attitudes to gender roles need to adapt quickly to reflect our modern society. Only then will maternal discrimination issues and the classic stereotypes, as vocalised by Mr Farage, truly become parental issues, regardless of gender.

Win-win for employers and employees

Employers need to do more than merely pay lip service to their family friendly policies which are often buried in a handbook and never actually implemented in practice. Employers who have male and female role models in senior positions who “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”, and who mentor professional working parents and others who wish to work flexibly, are likely to reap the dividends in terms of increased loyalty and productivity, as those employees will be more engaged and committed to the business. Further, it is likely to lead to them retaining existing clients and winning work from new clients, as many companies ask employers for statistics on equality, diversity and family friendly issues when tendering for new work. Loyal, engaged staff and more business from existing and new clients is a win/win for both employers and employees.

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