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Why young women can't win in the workplace

Ruby Hinchliffe

Ruby Hinchliffe

After writing a story about IFAs hiring female administrators in their 50s to avoid children interfering, I was struck by some of the responses we got from male advisers.

Amid all the ‘back in my day we did [insert highly misogynistic practice]’, there was one line of argument that bothered me far more than the rest. One that was made by both male and female advisers.

And it was this: that a woman who hasn’t had children couldn’t possibly empathise with clients in the same way as one who has.

“They understand the human condition,” one male IFA said in response to the article.

Scrolling through more replies, it dawned on me. Young women still really can’t win in the workplace. 

If they want to have children – or are simply of child bearing age – they should expect to be discriminated against based on the assumption they may need time off work, which their employer is reluctant to give.

But equally, they should expect to be discriminated against if they have not yet had children because birthing a child is apparently the litmus test for whether you're qualified to speak to a client.

Being a woman in her mid-20s and approaching that biological window of her professional career, I fear such stalemate biases could seriously taint what should be a very personal decision – to have, or not to have, a baby.

There is already mounting pressure on the young women of today to have children before they’re 30, a pressure that ignores the fact many men in their 20s do not want to have children.

Research published by the Office for National Statistics in January brought this to the forefront. In 1971, 18 per cent of 30-year-olds had no children – today that figure has risen to 50 per cent.

Of course, the media headlines implied women were at fault for this steep increase.

The absence of men in the childbearing debate seemed just as blatant when I was reading IFAs’ responses to my article. Why is it that women need to be judged on their ability to empathise with clients, while men do not? If men were, then surely no advice company would hire them?

One comment left by an adviser that really intrigued me was this idea of male and female traits adopted by advisers.

They said: “The best advisers I know are either women or men who reject ‘masculine’ bits of the role (flogging stuff, ‘smashing targets’, ‘influencing’) vs more useful ‘feminine’ elements (eg building relationships of trust).”

The industry is predisposed to judge men and women based on gender stereotypes. And yet, ‘feminine elements’ can only come to bear once a woman physically bears a child.

It feels like an incredibly draconian rule, to suggest you are not truly feminine, and therefore useful, in the workplace until you've become a mother.

Meanwhile, male employees have no such hurdle to overcome in order for their skills to bear fruit.