Progress has been made in terms of the number of women in the workforce as a whole, but the number of females in senior roles remains “stubbornly low”, she says.
This is because culture and expectations at a senior level are still driven by a “male model of work” which assumes the worker has a wife at home to take care of the housework and the children.
In researching the “seemingly irreconcilable tensions” between senior roles and motherhood, Ross-Smith has encountered numerous female executives who advocate flexible-work policies and practices to their own staff, but few who take advantage of them personally.
“We speak to a lot of women who have very senior roles in organisations who say, ‘Oh yeah, of course I encourage my staff to take maternity leave and take carers’ leave if their children are sick, but it’s just not so easy for us’.”
Part of the problem is the persisting expectations that senior staff must work long hours and avoid “disruptive” career breaks, she says, recalling an interview with a worker who said, “we have a flexible workforce, so long as I do my 60 hours a week”.
This kind of attitude can preclude ambitious women from taking advantage of “what is often a very good work/life balance policy”, Ross-Smith says.
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Ross-Smith, who co-authored a chapter of The good mother: contemporary motherhoods in Australia (released earlier this month), says attitudes, cultures and relationships in the workplace are critical in ensuring flexible-work policies achieve their purpose.
Too many employers say, “We’ve got the policies in place, you women have to do something about it,” she says.
They engage in “tokenistic” talk about quotas, but lack a comprehensive strategy based on what their female staff actually want.
“It’s all very well to say [you're bringing in a quota], but then you’ve got to reach that quota, and how are you going to do it without cooperating with your teams and the senior HR decision makers to say: ‘Well what can we do to keep those talented women? What is it that will attract them to stay? Is it some of the more traditional things like working less hours? Is it the culture of the organisation?’
“And when you start thinking that way, you start thinking about things [like] the culture of work hours, [and] the expectations,” she says.
Another key is to foster good relationships between senior women and their managers.
“If you have a senior (often male) boss enlightened about these things and who values you – the individual – and your talent, then it’s easier to negotiate something that works for you,” Ross-Smith says.
Encouraging senior staff to take time off for holidays once a year will also help to change an organisation’s culture for the better.
If having a life outside of work “becomes respected in a way that perhaps in the senior levels it hasn’t [been] in the past,” workers are more likely to take advantage of policies that support a work/life balance, she says.
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