Employers' excessive demands on staff, including overly long hours and being constantly available, are to blame for women with children not advancing in their careers, according to a new study.

Research led by Laura Jones of King's College London (KCL) provides new insights into the workplace gender divide and women's career progression. It reveals how a culture of overwork disadvantages female employees who have caring commitments, and that women face stigma for being associated with part-time or flexible working.  

Other findings include bosses championing 'clone' employees who are like them or part of their network. The researchers are calling on employers to help prevent gender bias in decision-making by introducing standards for promotion and advancement.

The study will be the focus of at an event as part of the annual Economic and Social 

Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Science.

"A long-hours culture, expectations of constant availability and a lack of part-time progression are enduring features of modern workplaces," says Professor Rosie Campbell, director of KCL's Global Institute for Women's Leadership (GIWL).

"The message from our study is employers and government must shift the focus towards 'non-extreme' jobs and show commitment from the top down to supporting part-time and flexible workers. Extra reforms are also needed so more men take on greater childcare responsibilities."

It is widely established that women's career progression plateaus in their late 20s and early 30s. In addition, those who enter the job market in low-paid roles rarely progress compared with men.

The full reasons are still not understood although gender differences in part-time work are a significant factor.

The KCL study looked not only at women moving up the hierarchy in their chosen profession but also at any job change leading to better pay, working conditions, responsibility or security.

The evidence review was funded and commissioned by the Government Equalities Office and based on an analysis of more than 100 studies carried out between 2000 and 2018. These covered barriers in the UK to women's progression, factors making advancement easier, and the researchers also looked at international evidence of successful gender-based policies within organisations.

They found gender bias flourished without clear and transparent systems on pay and promotion, with decisions reached via processes that disadvantage women including networking.

A shortage of quality part-time work was another issue – any increase in the number of female part-timers appears to be the result of already senior women negotiating a reduction in hours. 

GIWL now plans to launch an education programme for senior leaders aimed at evidence-based approaches to promote inclusive workplaces.

The findings referenced in this release will be shared as part of an event chaired by Professor Campbell entitled Effective Change for Gender Inclusive Workplaces on 6 November for policymakers and industry. The event is part of the ESRC’s flagship annual Festival of Social Science, and it will inform work by GIWL with businesses to analyse the effectiveness of diversity programmes.