Friends Life research: No shattering of glass ceiling before 2020

The glass ceiling preventing women from climbing to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder will still be firmly in place at the end of this decade, according to a new report from Friends Life.

The report, entitled Working Women and part of Friends Life’s Vision of Britain 2020 series, reveals that the majority of working women see no end to the obstacles hindering their advancement in the workplace. Some 55% of women believe there will still be a significant pay gap between men and women in 2020, while 53% think women will still be struggling much more than men to secure senior roles.

In contrast, men expect more equality between the sexes by 2020. Less than a third (31%) of men think there will still be a significant pay gap, and only 30% believe women will be at a disadvantage when applying for the top jobs.

The findings highlight just how much progress still needs to be made to ensure male domination of the boardroom is ended and women can reach their full potential professionally, according to the report. A government-commissioned report from Sir Mervyn Davies, published in February, called for at least a quarter of FTSE 100 boards to be made up of women by 2015, while the 30% Club is campaigning for a series of measures to improve the prospects of women at senior and board level. 

Motherhood, and childcare pressures in particular, remain the biggest barriers for women, according to the report. Over half (51%) of working mothers who have taken maternity leave agree that childcare is so expensive that financially it is not worth returning to work. Some 24% of working women with children under five spend more than a quarter of their salary on childcare.

Of those who do choose to go back, the need for flexible working is almost universally recognised. Some 88% of working women believe they should be allowed to reduce their hours for the sake of their family without this affecting their career prospects.

While some organisations, particularly in the public sector, have made big strides in offering flexible working, there is still a long way to go. The report found that a shorter working week, subsidised childcare and the ability to work from home are all offered far less than many working mothers would like.

Kim Clarke, head of HR at Friends Life, said: “The glass ceiling preventing women from getting to the top is still a long way from being shattered. Britain also faces a lost army of mothers who are willing but unable to work because of the prohibitive cost of childcare, with serious implications for both the economy and family finances. The right flexible working policy and culture can help women in particular. Flexible working alongside mentoring can help foster a culture of understanding among senior management of the pressures facing women and can ultimately help both women and business prosper. ”

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Maggie Berry, managing director of, added: “An employer’s willingness to offer flexible working often comes down to the attitude of individual managers. We need to move to a position where all employers, large or small and across all sectors, are prepared to help women struggling to juggle the demands of their work and home lives. However, women need to be realistic too. They must understand there will be compromise on both sides, and their employer may not be in a position to give them exactly what they ask for.”

Read more stories on the gender pay gap