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Social expectations of gender roles need to change

Despite inclusive workplace policies, gender roles in parenting are still too deep-rooted

Diversity and more specifically gender diversity has featured in the landscape of Human Resources (HR) of large companies such as Deutsche Bank for more than a decade.

It continues to be at the forefront, but challenging social expectations of gender roles in parenting is fundamental to making real progress.

We hire roughly an equal number of men and women in our graduate intakes. We have roughly the same number of men and women at junior levels, and women often progress faster at the earlier stages of their careers.

However, tackling the fallout rate that comes at a crucial stage of an individual's career - say, making the step from vice-president to director - continues to be a challenge.

This often represents a time when employees are in their late 30s, really coming into their own and ready to step up in responsibility and accelerate to the top ranks of the organisation. It also happens to be the time when many employees decide to have children.

These two should not be irreconcilable, but more often than not, they are.

Deutsche Bank's approach to diversity has been evolving for years, broadening to address all elements of inclusion and exclusion in the workplace.

We made commitments a number of years ago, along with other DAX companies, to improve parity in the workplace, particularly at senior levels. We are now also looking to ensure we reach the targets to comply with the German Gender Quota Law in 2020.

The bank has taken a number of positive steps to achieve some of these aims, whether sponsorship or mentoring, leadership programmes designed to encourage women to step up, and general advocacy. There has been a lot of progress but we have not yet overcome the biggest hurdle to equal representation at senior levels of the bank - roles in parenting.

Last year at a diversity event the bank was sponsoring, I participated in a discussion about barriers to progression for women in the workforce. One woman shared how the decision to have children meant consciously electing not only to take maternity leave, but also accepting that her career would go on hold for at least three years.

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Another said that it meant being prepared to leave work suddenly when the school called to say their child was sick.

I then asked whether her husband had ever left work early to pick up their daughter.

She replied: "Oh no. He has lots of meetings and calls, and works internationally."

This raised the question of whether their husbands had elected to dial down their careers and given up international travel so that they could parent, and allow these talented women to continue their careers at the same pace.

Herein lies the nub of our problem. For all HR's efforts to institute flexible working and family-friendly policies, the fundamental problem is social expectations.

Society expects women to revert to the age-old role of "mother", looking after the children, making sacrifices and putting careers on hold, while men play the traditional "father" role of breadwinner and maintain the serious work of their careers.

If a woman chooses not to sacrifice her career, she will be criticised for "shirking her responsibilities" or "putting career before family".

But how often are men criticised for pursuing their career over family?

So we are dealing with a deep-rooted social issue here. We need to challenge roles of "motherhood" and "fatherhood". We need to talk about our roles within our families and relationships.

For most couples, the decision to have children and build a family is a mutual and equal one. Therefore, shouldn't the responsibility (and sacrifice) be equal when raising a child?

At Deutsche Bank Asia Pacific, we had in the past 16 weeks of "maternity leave" for women (new parents know the first 16 weeks is no picnic!) and men had five days to help out. This structure reinforced gender roles and stereotypes.

In effect, it said that only women could take the primary responsibility of raising a family; that only women have to take a break in their careers.

That a man's role was to continue building his career, uninhibited by the inconvenience of prioritising the care of a sick child, a parents' meeting or school assembly.

It may be a small step that the bank has taken, but now - by removing a gendered approach to parental leave - we are giving both men and women access of up to 16 weeks of parental leave from a child's birth or adoption, and the right to choose their own role in parenting.

The writer is Deutsche Bank Head of Human Resources, Asia Pacific. Deutsche Bank Asia Pacific's gender neutral parental leave policy took effect from January 1, 2017. This article was published in The Business Times yesterday.

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