Stop ‘fixing’ the women – fix the structure

Gender-related barriers still exist in the workplace, with women who have children also facing a ‘mum penalty’.

By Ellen Joan Nelson
30 Sep 2022
read time
3 min to read
Female athlete jumping over hurdles

With volumes of research to support that gender diversity in leadership teams, coupled with an inclusive environment, leads to improved performance, there are also societal pressures to address gender inequities in the workplace.

Aside from the moral and ethical imperatives, organisations are expected to do more to increase the representation of women in senior leadership positions. When it comes to board members, board chairs, CEOs and other senior roles, women are massively underrepresented.

Statistics show that women make up only 25.9% of directors on private company boards, although research shows the figure at 50.9% on public sector boards.

Current offerings to prepare and encourage more women towards senior roles tend to be focused on ‘fixing’ the individual women. There are ‘women in leadership’ courses, women’s networking groups, coaching for women, courses for women (especially mums) to manage their competing priorities, and programmes to increase women’s confidence.

They are good offerings, add value and are needed, but they are only Band-Aids. If organisations are serious about increasing the representation of women, which they should be, they need to stop looking at ‘fixing’ the women and start looking at fixing the structures which are causing barriers to successful advancement.

Changing these structures to support women would also be good for men, and also for organisational performance and profits.

Women face gender-related barriers in some workplaces, such as harmful or sexist attitudes, and a lack of appreciation for alternate approaches to leadership.

In addition, women who have children face a further ‘mum penalty’, exacerbated by the value organisations place on people who work long hours.

Addressing the ‘mum penalty’ is one of the most impactful things an organisation can do to meaningfully increase its representation of women, and at the same time, experience improvements in overall productivity, staff wellbeing and retention.

Following my PhD (which focused on the leadership and wellbeing experiences of women in the workforce), my less formal post-doctoral research involved conversations with more than 500 parents, mostly mums, about the experiences of being a working parent.

“The ‘9-to-5’ construct was cemented in society more than a century ago, and it was based off the assumption that every household had a dedicated worker (a man) and a dedicated caregiver (a woman).”

The results were:

  1. Parents couldn’t make work work so left the workforce.
  2. Parents worked full-time and missed their children.
  3. Parents worked part-time for less pay, but inevitably still completed the same workload and their career prospects were limited.

The root cause of these three disappointing outcomes is the societal-wide mismatch between the schedules of adults and children.

The ‘9-to-5’ construct was cemented in society more than a century ago, and it was based off the assumption that every household had a dedicated worker (a man) and a dedicated caregiver (a woman).

This does not reflect the demographics of our society today, yet the construct of work has remained largely unchanged.

With school being less than ‘9-to-5’, this creates a substantial challenge for every single parent (about 80% of the population become parents), and the burden of managing a paid job, as well as the majority of the child-related tasks, is still falling predominantly on women.

Hence the #workschoolhours movement was born. It aims to reduce the work schedule to align with the school schedule, without reducing salaries. This is not an idea just for mums, or even just for parents, this should be for everyone.

It focuses on outputs (what it is we want staff to deliver), as opposed to their inputs (their hours and location of work), as well as on flexibility and autonomy.

Perpetual Guardian and Andrew Barnes’ four-day-week is already proving that the same amount of work can be done in fewer hours, just as the hundreds of part-time workers from my study are demonstrating.

There are productivity gains to be made by focusing more on outputs and less on hours. If all staff had more time outside of work, their wellbeing would improve, making them better focused and better performers when they are at work.

From an attraction and retention point of view, just imagine the calibre of talent you could bring to your organisation if you said, ‘We will never make you feel guilty about your commitments outside of work, such as collecting your children from school or going surfing – we care that you do your job well, not when or where you do it’.

As well as moving towards #workschoolhours, and normalising this for all staff, organisations who do more to support all parents during parental leave will also see benefits in improving their representation of women.

Instead of viewing parental leave as ‘time out’, organisations should value the myriad skills gained during this period and as their children grow: patience, time management, empathy, negotiation, multi-tasking and much more.

We need to stop expecting parents to ‘work like they don’t have children’ and ‘parent like they don’t have jobs’. The more organisations can do to support working parents and normalise this for all staff, the better for it they will be. Moving in this direction is both socially and commercially smart. 

Ellen Joan Nelson served as a leader in the New Zealand Army for 10 years, which included operational service in Afghanistan. During 2021 & 2022, she was part of a volunteer team, including Chris Parsons and Martin Dransfield, who evacuated 563 people from Afghanistan to New Zealand. Her PhD focused on authentic leadership and social wellbeing experiences of women in the workforce, with her case study being the Army. She then worked with the Army to improve the attraction, recruitment, retention and advancement of women. Her post-doctoral research (experiences of parents in the workforce) focused her understanding of leadership and high-performing teams, which led to #workschoolhours. She runs her own business as a speaker, trainer and consultant, helping organisations improve in the areas of leadership, wellbeing, gender and the future of work.

Her website is