We often hear about the glass ceiling that stops women in advancing their careers and how that ceiling, in the era of gender equality, is easier to break through.

More and more women are becoming directors, earning degrees, and making significant contributions in science, politics, and everywhere else.

Given last week was the International Women’s Day, this topic is very timely and we are increasingly seeing different organisations to truly embracing gender equality not just in words but also in practice.

The bottom line is this: as a leader, if you want a highly effective successful organisation, then gender equality is something you need to pay close attention to.

This is not about emotional arguments or feminist anger about differential treatment but just very basic logic: if you empower all of your employees to excel, you will get results.

It is about creating a culture of change that enables both men and women to thrive. Workplace equality is about creating opportunities and recognising that everyone of us needs to be supported in order for us to work together.

Accenture for example has just launched a new project Getting to Equal that explored how people consider workplace equality and which factors enable best cultural change in organisations. As Ellen Shook from Accenture eloquently writes

People are the heart and soul of any organization and culture lives and breathes in each of us. When we commit as individuals to make change, collectively we lift each other up, paving the way for workplace equality”

But promoting workplace equality is not about treating everyone the same because women do face very different sets of challenges when it comes to leadership positions, and career development.


Women and differential career impacts

Two recent papers in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) raise very good and complimentary points what it means to be a woman with child caring responsibilities while trying to contribute to the scientific field.

Both papers come to the same conclusion: it’s still actually hard.

Here’s why:

A study done by Miriam Gay-Antaki and Diana Liverman looked at 100 women who have been participating in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports.

The Assessment reports are significant in many ways: authors who are nominated and participate in the assessment reports are recognised for their expertise globally, being an author gives significant prestige to one’s career, and being involved in the process gives authors opportunities to increase their professional profile and also expand their network and stay on top of the recent scientific developments in their field.

What this study found was that many women did not feel that their opinions were listened to as much as the men’s and family responsibilities were some of the major barriers to their full participation in the IPCC assessment process.

Women also reported that

“if they had children, childcare responsibilities were their biggest obstacle, particularly those who were single parents or with babies. Several confessed that this responsibility might have negatively impacted their performance during the IPCC”

An opinion piece by Rebecca M. Calisi and a Working Group of Mothers in Science also notes the serious impact that women with childcare duties face when it comes to career development and attending conferences.

The “baby penalty” impacts women more seriously than men as many women choose not to go to a conference because it is just too hard and expensive to organize care for their child or children.

But what the authors note is that actually enabling both genders to attend will increase innovation and diversity of ideas and also result in added benefits:

“Solving the childcare–conference conundrum will benefit not only primary caretakers, other parents, and scientific innovation and discovery but also the institutions and businesses associated with the conferences”

There are practical considerations that go with attending conferences that relate to costs and also the lack of social network and support that are particularly hard on single mothers and single parents overall.


Double glass ceiling and financial pressure

The glass ceiling is thicker however for women who are single mothers, work full-time and don’t necessarily have family living close by.

There are several practical reasons for this: many women cannot attend conferences, especially single mothers, due to additional financial costs of a) taking the baby with them (flights, babysitting services on location, travel insurance) and b) leaving the child with a carer.

For example, night-nannies in Australia can cost between $300-400 dollars, not including daytime care or childcare centre drop-offs/pick-ups.

Single mothers who should do fieldwork are in the same situation: taking a child with them to a foreign country requires often hiring a babysitter and paying for flights and travel insurance, and leaving the child at home again means similar costs in babysitting.

Many women make these sacrifices out of their personal budgets so that they can continue their research and develop their careers.

Why should we be worrying about this?

What this means in the long-run is added personal financial and professional pressure. Women cannot drop everything because there is an important evening meeting or workshop event in another city.

Extra costs impact on their ability to take a loan or mortgage, or put money away for emergency issues such as car breakdowns or extra medical services if she or the child suddenly gets ill.

This also means that impromptu conference or workshop is often out of limits as they need to plan much more carefully which engagements they can participate in.

Single parents are obviously on single salaries, which means that they also have less opportunity to cover these costs by themselves.

All of this also has a tasking effect on innovation and idea development in organisations: faced with such challenges, women, as the IPCC example demonstrates, might be worse off in performing at their best.

What I am trying to highlight here are the practical realities that many women face, even those with husbands at home who might not participate as fully in caring for children as mothers do.

Many of these issues are often not recognised or are ignored in project budgets and workplace regulations, sometimes simply because those in higher leadership positions might not be aware what kinds of everyday arrangements parents have to make to pursue their careers.

Increasing inclusivity and empowering new leadership

I’ve raised this issue at multiple fronts because this is something that we need to recognise and talk about.

For example, Harvard Business Review has just began a new podcast series, Women at Work, that focuses on discussing specific issues facing women at the workplace. This would be a great opportunity for the show to engage also with how women who are single mothers can develop their career not despite, but because of, their carer responsibilities.

Dorie Clark is a highly successful female entrepreneur who is frequently giving advice and devoting her expertise in helping others to learn how to have become successful entrepreneurs.

Her insights are so inspirational and I secretly (and now publicly) hope that this issue facing women especially who are full-time working single parents will be something that will also feature in her future advice.

Calisi and the group raise a number of ways how parents can be better supported at conferences:

  • Childcare: conference organizers could organize childcare at the conference venue and have this subsidized from registration fees or from donations from scientific societies; offer discounts for those with carer responsibilities if they cannot attend all days of the conference.
  • Organise a parent/caregiver social network. Many parents will be juggling same challenges during conferences and would benefit greatly from establishing contact network with other parents and exchange tips. There are opportunities for this clearly with WhatsApp groups or even using Slack for dedicated parent/carer group.

Liverman and Gay-Antaki also report that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is starting to consider these gender issues: they have more women in leadership positions now and hopefully this can lead to more women being supported also financially to attend the IPCC assessment meetings and being offered more flexible ways to contribute.

Some grant and funding bodies are also beginning to pay for carer costs and my university is engaged with the Athena SWAN process that focuses on gender equity in STEMM careers (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine).

I am excited about this program and hope that the next steps can include more support for mothers to travel with their children to conferences or to do fieldwork or support for carer costs while the parent might be away in a conference.

In the end, this is not however just about women versus men.

It’s about appreciating diversity, increasing inclusion and making sure that we all have the best opportunities to excel in our roles.

One of the best explanations how organisations can achieve this is an episode on Coaching for Leaders  about how Deloitte is changing its operational culture to become more inclusive. Deepa Purushothaman, National Managing Principal of Inclusion at Deloitte, explains this approach and really hones in how this can be done.

More and more wonderful examples how organisations are changing to match the challenges and opportunities that our modern world brings.

Being a parent is actually very closed to aligned to leadership and many times leadership begins really at home.

Many women are already taking these leadership roles and should be supported in also being able to excel as leaders in the workplace.

Accommodating the different challenges will increase workplace satisfaction, increase innovation and simply make us all more happier.