The Career Dilemmas Facing UK Women

Helena MorrisseyRigid career structures and inflexible working hours are top career obstacles for women. It’s ‘Up, Out or Different’ – according to new research from executive coaching company Talking Talent. It surveyed over 2500 working women in the UK which reveals that over 50% are at a ‘career cross roads’ - unsure whether to progress up, out or pursue a different career altogether. 

 The report ‘Up, Out or Different’ – The Career Dilemma for UK women’, with a foreword by Helena Morrissey, CBE (Founder 30% Club, see photo left), looks at the main ‘pinch points’ challenging women’s careers and hindering their progression, as well as the skills and support needed to overcome these issues. 

The report found among others:

  • 52% of all women in their 20s, 30s and 40s working across a range of industry sectors identified the ‘career crossroads’ as the lead pinch point
  • Age or seniority makes little difference to women’s desire to continually re-evaluate their current place of work, role and career trajectory. 

  • 88% of all women surveyed see inflexible and long working hours and or rigid career options as a barrier to career progression.
  • 48% of all women highlighted ‘maternity transition’ as the most challenging point in their careers.
  • 68% of working parents state maternity transition’ as the biggest single challenge in their careers.

Generation Y and Maternity

 But also Generation Y are looking ahead, women without children seeing the challenges faced by peers and are planning how to do things differently in order to best advance their careers. For them it (future) maternity transition was the 3rd highest pinch point.

 It highlights the need for businesses to not only support women through their maternity but also help prepare female employees who may be contemplating starting a family in a few years’ time. One respondent summed this up well: “I don’t want to start a family now, but might wish to in the next five years. Not sure how this will fit with wanting to become Senior Associate and then Partner. More flexible working and remote working would be good.” 

Lack of Flexibility and Rigid Career Structures

The roots of these ‘pinch points’ is the lack of flexibility and rigid career structures that exist in many companies. The problem is mostly keenly felt by women in their 30s with 71% claiming that rigid career options were a barrier and 79% stating that inflexible/long working hours were problematic. 

 However, the issue of flexible working spans a wide period of many women’s careers, extending for women well into the 40s, as they may face other parenting milestones (children starting/changing school or taking important exams etc.) which require a flexible, bespoke approach to their career.

 Flexible working here does not have to mean working part-time, far from it, but the issue of bias against part-time workers comes out powerfully within the research, “I have been told I cannot expect to progress while I remain part-time.” 

 Chris Parke, CEO of Talking Talent, comments:

“18 months on from the Lord Davies review into women on boards, the number of females on FTSE 100 executive boards has crept up from 5.5% to 6.6%. More women should be coming through the talent pipelines but progression in this area is slow. We are seeing some strong movement in non-executive director appointments, but this is not a reflection of an improved talent pipeline. Our report shows that half of all women are rethinking their options - staying, leaving or doing something different - and the main drivers are the lack of flexibility in working practice, narrow career options and a lack of suitable managerial support.” 

 Personal Business Development

The report also revealed a strong appetite for personal development amongst the women, and identified softer behavioural-led skills as opposed to more functional skills as a key to progression.

 Self-belief and confidence was ranked as the highest (56%) requirement for all ages, with networking as the second highest priority at 54% and building profile/brand (40%) third. 

 The research outlines greater management support (53%) and coaching and development (48%) as the most important tools to break down barriers and to help women progress, closely followed by that sought after improvement in flexible working (46%).

 Parke adds: “Companies need to support women at all stages and introduce interventions to prevent barriers arising, enabling talent to move through the business at a quicker, and more consistent pace. Interventions like coaching are in demand and for high potential women in particular it can be critical in preparing them for senior and board level roles. But they must be only part of the solution. This needs to be a holistic approach, which involves the organisation, the managers and the employees. The role of the manager cannot be overstated but they themselves must receive the right support and challenge to ensure they can make good organisational policy a day to day reality.


Organisations need to ensure they have the right mechanisms in place to enable managers to make flexible, part-time and alternative career paths work. Overlaid on top of that managerial support, each organisation must also evaluate how it can provide more female role models and senior mentors.” 


 With over 2,500 responses, the research provides a robust understanding of what the needs of these women are, and therefore offers a high potential value for the UK businesses who are looking to invest in them. If businesses can be as clear in their actions in these areas for change as the women surveyed are in choosing them, real progress can continue to be made.”

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