Women are a key source of untapped potential which we need to harness to boost economic growth in the UK.”

Cilla Snowball, CBE (Chair)

2. Getting on: supporting women in the middle phase of their working lives

Mother reading a book to her young child

Strategic objectives

The creation of a work and social environment which ensures women can fully contribute their economic potential by:

  • ensuring effective talent management;
  • facilitating access to affordable, accessible and quality childcare; and,
  • supporting culture change in business through the promotion and adoption of flexible working.


Women are 46% of the workforce, but their representation falls in more senior positions

Position Women (%) Women (Number of employees) Men (%) Men (Number of employees)
Managers, directors and senior officials 33% 774 67% 6,405
Professional, associate professional and technical jobs 47% 4,012 53% 4,494
All other occupations 54% 7,356 46% 6,405

Source: Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings 2012, employees only

Three issues are critical at this stage: how business supports women by managing talent; the cost and availability of childcare; and access to flexible working opportunities.


1. Talent management

Increased global competition; a workforce shifting from the public to the private sector; digitisation; an ageing population: these challenges demand that business recruit the best talent and hold onto an experienced and trained workforce.

Effective talent management encompasses a range of areas including, but not limited to, organisational capacity, individual development, performance improvement, workforce and succession planning. Specific talent management programmes include activities such as leadership coaching, networking, exposure to clients and formal training. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) 2012 ‘Learning and talent development’ survey just over half of all employers use some form of talent management in their companies. This has been in response to a range of factors such as external supply pressures, global competition, skills shortages and demographic changes, changes in business strategy, or corporate governance. We want to see more companies adopting a strategic approach to getting the best from their workforce; this will help avoid wasted potential in employees and ensure maximum return for investment.

It is vital that companies have effective talent management and promotion processes in place and this is particularly relevant for women, as their career path is often drastically altered by time away from the workforce because of family commitments. In addition, the transition of women back into work after maternity leave can cause particular problems for both women and business. A study by McKinsey found that leading law and accountancy firms were doing well in recruiting women but a discrepancy emerged in later promotion, with promotion rates markedly higher for men28.

There are existing resources that can help employers to improve their talent management, such as the CIPD range of guides available at http://www.cipd.co.uk/hr-resources/factsheets/talent-management-overview.aspx Some forward-thinking companies and organisations provide support through women’s networks mentoring and sponsorship programmes, which can make a huge difference to women’s career paths and prospects29. Women should actively seek out these opportunities.

There is also a key role for industry and sector bodies, including trade unions, to guide and support women through these periods of transition, to help them make the best choices for themselves, in light of their particular skills, ambitions and personal circumstances.

What Government should do

  • The Government’s Think, Act, Report initiative promotes action and transparency on gender equality. It encourages companies and organisations who report on gender equality to share good practice. This voluntary scheme currently covers over 100 leading companies with 1.6 million employees. A recent survey of Think, Act, Report members indicated that the majority were either taking more action and publishing more UK gender equality information than previously, or plan to do so in the near future. The Government should continue to champion this scheme as it provides practical ways for employers in all sectors to improve. We recommend that it is expanded and continues to be actively promoted.
  • The Civil Service should act as an exemplar for talent management for senior women. It should consider whether additional steps could be taken to increase the number of women reaching the ‘Top 200’ group and report on progress.

What business should do

  • Many companies already have effective talent management and career mapping processes. However this is not widespread, so we recommend good practice is shared.
  • We recommend that companies introduce effective return to work procedures, including pre-return self-appraisal, and provide women’s networks, mentoring and sponsorship programmes, which focus on the individual and build both confidence and skills.
  • Opportunity Now, the campaign on gender diversity from Business in the Community, has produced a guide for employers, called Changing Gear, which describes the practical steps they can take to ensure they have a diverse pipeline. The document comprises Ten impactful steps towards a diverse pipeline and we strongly recommend that companies adopt the measures outlined.
  • Companies should offer regular work experience for those mothers taking career breaks, and extend ‘keep in touch’ schemes, to help ensure their return is as smooth as possible.
  • Unconscious bias training should be provided to recruitment teams and managers.
  • Employers should provide access to organisations such as An Inspirational Journey and Everywoman, which support women to develop skills and confidence and help progression through the pipeline.

2. Childcare

The cost of childcare is commonly cited by women as a barrier to progression into senior roles, and it is a disincentive for working longer hours. Childcare in England is among the most costly in Europe. In the past four years, the average cost of a nursery place has gone up by 23%30, whilst the average full-time wage has increased by 2.5% and the average part-time wage has increased by just 0.3%31.

While parents often complain that childcare is expensive and difficult to access, providers report under-occupancy in some regions and low profits. Childcare providers are overwhelmingly female and this is an area of high female entrepreneurship, so it is important to support providers to enable them to offer and get the best value from their business. We welcome the recent announcements of the Childcare Commission about a new scheme for tax free childcare, but with the Office for National Statistics projecting an additional 150,000 0-4 year olds by 202532, matching provision to requirement will become even more pressing.

What Government should do

  • We strongly welcome the recommendations of the Childcare Commission on financial support for parents and believe that the changes proposed to the tax system are going in the right direction. They will take some of the pressures off family incomes and allow more women (and men) to remain attached to the labour market. We urge the Government to closely monitor their impact to ensure that they will deliver the much needed support for families and working parents. If the economic climate allows this should be expanded further, as we firmly believe this will aid economic growth.
  • Develop improved information for parents on childcare options in their area using Ofsted and local authority data.

What business should do

  • Business should recognise the benefits of shared parental leave.

3. Flexible working

Flexible working is an arrangement which gives some degree of flexibility on how long, where and when they work. This can be in terms of working time, working location and pattern of working. The workplace design of fixed locations and fixed hours is dated and no longer reflects our globalised and digitised world. There are clear benefits for business from flexibility, primarily in retaining staff and improving morale; but also, in generating value by better use of the location and premises, size, roles and working patterns of their work forces. The competitive advantage offered by these practices mean they are becoming increasingly widespread, with 77% of women and 70% of men using at least one form of flexible working. In 1998 27% of employers operated flexitime and 16% had home workers; by 2012 these figures had grown to 50% and 54% respectively33

Benefits of flexible working

  • 76% of businesses report that flexible working improves staff retention
  • 73% of businesses report that it improves staff motivation
  • 72% of businesses report that it improves employee engagement

Source: CIPD (2012) 'Flexible Working Provision and Uptake'

Flexible working is good for the economy. Flexibility increases the performance of people and companies. Among employers that offer flexible working, 76% report that it improves staff retention, 73% report that it improves staff motivation and 72% report that it improves employee engagement34.

Go to Eversheds case study

Flexible working is also valued by employees, particularly (but not exclusively) by those who need to balance work and caring responsibilities and to have choices over what best suits their family. The majority of parents work and many of them struggle to balance their work and care needs. This burden usually falls to women, and the provision of flexible working is a major facilitator of their progression and retention in the workplace. It is also good for men, who are also responsible for childcare – or may wish to be, if they could make it compatible with their working lives.

41% of employees say that the availability of flexible working was a key factor in their decision to work for their current employer. But flexible working only succeeds where senior management understands the potential benefits, and there is still a stigma attached to working flexibly, particularly at senior management level, and some SMEs still hold negative views about accommodating flexible working, career breaks and maternity leave in particular.

It is important to note that flexible working is not the same as part-time working. There are many ways to work flexibly, including flexitime, term-time working, job sharing, working from home, arriving early or leaving late.

At the heart of any flexible arrangement is an element of trust. Trust and respect are important to an individual’s well being. The old command and control form of management can cause stress; whereas flexible working allows people to be themselves and makes a major difference to self esteem.

Flexible working is a two-way deal that is better created by a conversation than a set of rules. The right to request flexible working does not mean that employees can demand that their job is changed to suit their lifestyle, but it does mean employers should, if at all possible, encourage their employees to do their job at a time and place that suits them best. We shouldn’t expect employers to create flexible jobs, but we can expect them to be flexible about the way the jobs are done – many bosses ultimately discover that by creating roles to suit individual colleagues, they get the best results for both the business and its workforce.

Go to Dell case study

There are of course jobs where some flexible working practices are not suitable. A shop assistant can’t work from home, but Timpson Ltd has found that they can employ a flexible approach in their shoe repair and key cutting stores. Many stores are open seven days a week and operate a shift system. Colleagues covering each store decide amongst themselves what hours they want to work. That gives them the flexibility to find a balance between work, home and leisure.

Go to Timpson case study

Society is changing and rigid working patterns don’t fit the way we now live our lives or run our businesses. In recognition of this the Government is extending the right to request flexible working to all employees. These changes will help to challenge the notion that flexible working is special treatment for mothers, and we applaud them. Government has already gone a long way to support flexible working and move the issues away from being one that is focused solely on women, to shared parental responsibilities. There is still more we would encourage the Government and business to do however, to support a culture change that can benefit everybody.

In 20 years’ time very few businesses will have failed to have found the benefits that flexible working will bring. Our job is to make management today wake up to the realities of tomorrow’s world.

What Government should do

  • Use the opportunity of the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees to redraft the supporting guidance for employers, including definitions and best practice.
  • Promote best practice examples of sample contracts designed to support flexible working which moves away from stipulating ‘9 to5’ working patterns.
  • Work with the WBC flexible working champion, John Timpson – who has championed flexible working models to great effect in his own company – and other supporters of flexible working to share good practice.
  • Use male and female role models to demonstrate that flexible working doesn’t need to be a bar to a career in senior management.
  • Ask recruitment companies and Jobcentre Plus to fully acknowledge and understand the concept of flexible working, so that candidates who want to work flexibly can have a positive conversation during job interviews.
  • Produce guidance for employees to help them consider the impact on their employer when making any request for a change in the way they work.
  • Dispel the misconception that equipment provided by employers for home and flexible working is a taxable benefit.

Although the majority of parents work, many, especially those on lower incomes, find it difficult to balance their work and care needs. Companies that encourage employees to work the way that suits them best are more likely to attract the most talented new recruits and retain their loyalty. To maximise the contribution of talented employees we must provide an environment that keeps them committed to the workplace. It doesn’t make good business sense to train highly skilled workers only to waste the investment by refusing to be flexible about how they do their work.

What business should do

  • Offer employment contracts, wherever possible, which reflect the job itself, rather than where or when the work is to be done. Prescriptive terms like ‘part-time’ or ‘full-time’ should be avoided and any reference to hours worked should be written in a way that allows for future flexibility.
  • Share good practice, including examples of flexible contracts, so that small, medium and large companies can learn from each other in an industry-led approach to support cultural change.
  • We are aware that a group of employers, led by Lloyds Banking Group, is considering the issue of workforce flexibility in some depth and will be launching their report shortly. We urge all employers to consider the findings and look at how they can translate these into their own organisations.
Next: 3. Staying on