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"Extreme" job demands fuelling gender divide

Women with children are being held back in their careers by unsuitable work cultures

woman stressed at work

Employers' excessive demands on staff, including overly long hours and being constantly available, are to blame for women with children not advancing in their careers, according to a new study by the Global Institute for Women's Leadership.

The study provides new insights into the workplace gender divide and women's career progression. It reveals how a culture of overwork disadvantages female employees who have caring commitments, and that women face stigma for being associated with part-time or flexible working. 

Other findings include bosses championing "clone" employees who are like them or part of their network. The researchers are calling on government and employers to help prevent gender bias in decision-making by introducing clearer standards for promotion and advancement.

The study will be the focus of an event titled "What works to support women's careers?" as part of the annual Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Science.

"A long-hours culture, expectations of constant availability and a lack of part-time progression are enduring features of modern workplaces," says Laura Jones, GIWL Research Associate.

"The message from our study is employers must shift the focus towards 'non-extreme' jobs and show commitment from the top down to supporting part-time and flexible workers. There also needs to be better access to childcare to help parents to share caring responsibilities more equally."

It is widely established that women's career progression plateaus in their late 20s and early 30s. In addition, those who enter the job market in low-paid roles rarely progress compared with men.

The full reasons are still not understood although gender differences in part-time work are a significant factor.

The GIWL study looked not only at women moving up the hierarchy in their chosen profession but also at any job change leading to better pay, working conditions, responsibility or security.

The evidence review was funded and commissioned by the Government Equalities Office and based on an analysis of more than 100 studies carried out between 2000 and 2018. These covered barriers in the UK to women's progression, factors making advancement easier, and the researchers also looked at international evidence of successful gender-based policies within organisations.

They found gender bias flourished without clear and transparent systems on pay and promotion, with decisions reached via processes that disadvantage women including networking.

A shortage of quality part-time work was another issue – any increase in the number of female part-timers appears to be the result of already senior women negotiating a reduction in hours. 

GIWL now plans to launch an education programme for senior leaders aimed at evidence-based approaches to promote inclusive workplaces.

The findings will be shared at the ESRC event, which is taking place on 6 November, and will inform GIWL's work with businesses to analyse the effectiveness of diversity programmes.

Earlier this year the government set out a comprehensive strategy to tackle gender inequality, as well as guidance for employers on women's progression and family-friendly policies. The government also published a toolkit for returners to help them return to work after taking time out for caring for others. The Government Equalities Office fund a variety of returner schemes aimed at tackling gendered barriers for women returning and progressing in the workplace

Read the full study

Read an evidence briefing that summarises the main findings