Careers: No place for a woman

There is still no room at the top for working mothers. Tessa Thomas on the need for flexibility
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WHEN Carolyn, 31, returned to her job as a magazine section editor after having a child, she had a choice: either she could continue in her old job, its long hours incompatible with motherhood, or she could take a more junior post part-time.

'Neither was acceptable, and my employer wouldn't entertain the idea of my working partly from home. I was loath to apply for a job outside, because part-time jobs of any seniority are difficult to get. I ended up taking on my old job, but am now negotiating for a shorter working week,' she says.

According to a report just published by the Institute of Manpower Studies, more than half the professionals and managers who return to work after having children would like flexible working hours.

But at present senior positions are modelled around an average 48-hour week, while part-time workers are denied the training and other opportunities necessary for career advancement.

Only 15 per cent of part-timers surveyed had been promoted since their career break, while a quarter of women had accepted a job at a lower level. Nearly half of those working full-time said they were only doing so because their careers would suffer if they did not. 'There seems to be a choice for most working mothers - part-time work or a career,' says Wendy Hirsh, one of the authors of the Institute's Beyond the Career Break.

The central problem, she says, is that careers are still structured around patterns set by men - management by the early thirties, senior management by 40, on the board by 50. If you miss that transition in the early thirties, it can become difficult to move from a junior job.

The average age at which a professional woman now has her first child is 31, and most of those who have recently taken breaks are in their early thirties. The transition into management has to happen earlier. Only 10 per cent of managers have made the move since their maternity leave.

As organisations face a future in which they will be more reliant on women, some are beginning to accommodate returning mothers. The financial services sector is leading the way. Midland Bank, which has twice as many female managers as it did 10 years ago, is working on a programme to enable senior women to work part-time and has implemented a job-sharing scheme for managers, in which all takers so far have been women.

Yet only those already on management training schemes are assured of resuming their jobs after an extended career break; women on staff grades who take extended maternity leave are not.

The key day-to-day problem highlighted by the women surveyed is emergency time off for domestic problems, which few companies address. The civil service offers employees five days' paid leave a year for such eventualities, but only 18 per cent of private companies have any provision.

When Judith, an accountant in a large company, was faced with a sick baby on a day when her commitments at work were heavy, she had no option but to get her mother to travel down from Liverpool to London to care for the child. 'If you take time off, it's seen very negatively, because of the perception that working mothers are unreliable,' she says.

Mothers bear the burden, says Ms Hirsh, because it is even less acceptable for men to request time off for child care. 'They can leave early to pick up a car from the garage, but not the kids from school.'

This is despite the fact that three out of four of the women surveyed said they relied on their partners to take some responsibility for child care, and a third counted on their daily involvement.

There is much companies could do, Ms Hirsh maintains, from employing 'flying nannies' to organising networks of colleagues to cover for each other. Yet only 3 per cent of the companies surveyed gave any assistance with child care.

(Photograph omitted)