As a CEO or founder what can you do to support the mid-career women in your business?

March 8, 2021
Better Growth

As a CEO or founder what can you do to support the mid-career women in your business?

International Women's Day is a good time to reflect on the progress of gender equality in the workplace, and although there is much greater awareness, frankly, there has been too much talk and not enough action. There has been more focus in terms of targets, interventions and initiatives just not enough actual measurable change.

The pandemic has proven that the workplace is not an even playing field for men and women - more women have been made redundant or quit their job due to childcare, less women have been hired in lockdown and many women report fearing childcare responsibilities will lead to negative treatment at work . It’s clear that in many cases gender equality does not exist at home and the expectation of many companies that their employees with children should make up the hours they have been unavailable during a working day due to childcare and homeschooling is not only unreasonable but unsustainable.

At Birdsoup we work with a range of organisations from startups to large corporates providing support to women at all stages of their careers. We’ve worked with hundreds of women and we know that it’s “mid-career” when things can become complicated.

It’s no surprise that starting a family is a big factor for women in terms of their career progression, indeed it was our own experience of that slowdown in our career trajectory that was one of the reasons for creating Birdsoup.

Research backs up this slowdown in women’s careers. A survey done by the Chartered Management Institute in 2017 showed more women than men in entry-level positions (64% vs 38%) but at the middle management level, the ratio had changed to just 40% of women and decreased further at senior management to 36%. This obviously means there are less female candidates to progress to the director and board-level positions.

A rough estimate at when employees get their first management role is between 5 to 10 years of starting their career, so if they’re graduates that’s between 27 and 32. Around 60% of women in their 30’s have a child, rising to 80% of 40-year-olds. So at the point when women are making a choice to have a child it’s likely she may already be a manager or is nearly there.

We know anecdotally that women with children are often not considered for promotions or roles within an organisation because the assumption is they will not want the responsibility, the additional hours, the travel (remember that!) often without even having asked them.

We believe that these assumptions affect mid-career women whether they have children or not and of course can result in a lack of female role models.

As a CEO or founder what can you do to support the mid-career women in your business?

From our point of view providing learning and development to support your employees is a no brainer. We’re also strong believers that the responsibility for career development should be shared by the employee and the employer, with the individual taking the lead. The employer needs to provide the right framework to develop, advance and ultimately retain its employees.

In the last year, many businesses have not done any personal development with their teams and of course as many people have been working remotely in that time much of the informal development and feedback that people get day to day hasn’t been there either.

We know from our own experience that many people are promoted into a management position with limited or no training. We believe in starting leadership training as early as possible, helping people build good behaviours and self-awareness rather than picking up bad habits. At mid-career getting people ready to step into leadership roles and signposting what they have already and what they need to develop is crucial. Developing their communication, confidence and coaching skills will support both the individual and the culture

At Birdsoup we recognise the need to create a revolution in the workplace, the way we work is evolving but was designed by men for men. As recently as the late 1970’s women were not allowed to work if they were married. That’s no longer a reality and the live “experiment” during the pandemic of working remotely has proven what is possible but that people's experiences are massively different depending on their circumstances and their employer.

A more flexible workplace will benefit all employees. Despite working longer hours than most of Europe, productivity levels are poor in the UK. Working more flexibly can improve productivity and improve wellbeing and job satisfaction. So how your business supports parents (not just mothers) is key to really changing things.

Think about what flexibility can be offered, ensure people feel comfortable to take it up (fathers and mothers) and support the transition back into work after parental leave. Test it and measure it, often companies tell us they have tried things but have no data to support the success or failure.

Many businesses have done what they believe is a good job in creating support for their female employees. But very often they have a policy, or an initiative that is only available to few individuals or is subject to a manager's approval. In short none of those things will change anything unless the wider culture is truly inclusive.

It’s vital to really examine your culture and question if it’s set up for women to succeed:

  • Is it all about long hours and being “always on”
  • What behaviours and strengths are valued, who do they favour?
  • What leadership style is prevalent and is that “gendered”?
  • How do you promote people and is that system objective?
  • Are there “in-groups” and “out-groups”?
  • Do you have data and what do the numbers tell you?
  • If you’re losing your female talent when is that happening and do you know why?
  • If you offer support such as mentoring or sponsorship who gets access and do they accommodate different schedules and needs?
  • Are there strong female role models in your business?

Many of the women we work with report getting non-specific feedback that they are not “visible” or “strategic” enough, or they lack leadership, without a suggestion of how to remedy or any kind of development plan or access to training.

It’s important to listen to what it is that women need to succeed, not assuming or providing a solution that is not useful or relevant. You need to demonstrate that you really want to know the answer, many will fear saying that they are struggling or need support as they perceive it will negatively affect their careers (often rightly!)

We know that Women need different support, particularly through this mid-career transition. Don’t lose or underuse your female talent, help them make good career decisions and develop into strong female leaders that will be the role models for the next generation.

About Birdsoup

Birdsoup is a career and leadership consultancy on a mission to create a revolution in the workplace. We focus on education around inclusion driving the equality agenda through building innovative approaches to flexible working, supporting women through the specific pain points they face and the changes organisations can make. Our aim is to help organisations prepare for the workplace of the future and harness the untapped potential of their female employees.


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