Cantillon: Men should be able to take career breaks too

Alison Carnwath makes good points about staff retention. But must it always be women who step back?

Dame Alison Carnwath assessed the  problem of sexism in banking as “very bad. On every score. Very bad”

Dame Alison Carnwath assessed the problem of sexism in banking as “very bad. On every score. Very bad”


Dame Alison Carnwath, chairwoman of Land Securities and currently the only woman chairing a FTSE 100 company, has given an interview to the Financial Times in which she discusses the problem of sexism in banking. She assessed this as “very bad. On every score. Very bad”.

Carnwath, who used to sit on the board of Barclays bank, made an important point about ostrich-like employers not accounting for the cost of failing to retain trained employees who find it impossible to juggle parenthood with the workplace. If they did those sums, firms would realise expertise is worth keeping “in the fold”. The argument goes that in highly specialised industries, it makes no sense to simply let all that knowledge and experience drain away, or to perpetuate a system that does not let talent reach its full potential.

Instead, employers should let women take career breaks of up to six years in order to benefit from their long-term loyalty, Carnwath suggested: “Employers have to learn to accommodate you through the mid-life piece,” she said.

The gender-specific terms in which she apparently discussed the issue do inevitably reinforce the idea that mothers “should” be at home mothering, while male co-parents carry on putting in 14-hour days at the office. The problem, as it exists, relates to a lack of senior women in the corporate sphere. So it would seem like greater workplace flexibility – including that elusive phenomenon of mid-life breaks that do not permanently derail careers from the path to seniority – should be positive for women.

But nothing will be more positive for women than a work culture in which men are afforded the same right to take time off or take a step back during critical parenting years.

There is nothing employers dislike more than the idea that they cannot predict which employees will “cost” them in the short term. Bringing women back into the workplace after they have children is one way of achieving gender balance: another way involves ensuring it mustn’t always be women who are the ones to disappear in the first place.

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