The study, which focussed on 1,370 women in middle-ranking and senior jobs in four local authorities in England, found that women were failing to reach their potential because of inflexible job design and cultural expectations about full-time working and long hours. Of those who did reach senior levels, many felt unable to ask for flexible working or less than full time hours due to an informal rule that this type of working practice was unacceptable.
The study found that despite these perceived barriers, many women working in the sector were highly committed to their jobs, enthusiastic about training and development and aspired to successful careers. Over 55 per cent of those contracted to work 31-37 hours a week were routinely working much longer hours, mainly due to their commitment to their jobs.
Over 60 per cent of the women surveyed who earned over£27,000 had never used their employer's flexible working policies and fewer than 17 per cent of the women in this group were part-time employees.
Sue Yeandle, who directed the research programme at Sheffield Hallam University and is an author of the study explains: 'This study acts not only as evidence of what is happening in this particular sector, but raises concerns about women's experiences at work throughout the UK. Local authorities are in some ways very progressive employers, so if senior women in this type of organisation feel unable to work flexibly it is unlikely that women in other organisations are having better experiences.
'None of the authorities routinely advertised senior roles as possible part time opportunities and women who had gone part time often felt that their workload had not been adjusted to take account of the new hours.
'If the UK is to continue to prosper, then the skills, talent and enthusiasm of half its population cannot continue to be under-utilised in this way. We must move on from an employment system designed for the last century - it makes good business sense to design jobs around real people's lives as this is the only way employers can recruit from the best possible pool of people and retain the talent they have.'
Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said: 'These findings show that women are still facing many obstacles in the workplace and often end up in low paid, low prospect work despite being well qualified, especially when they want to work flexibly. There's a real opportunity for all us here. If the pay gap were closed, the Womenand Work Commission estimates up to£23bn could be added to the economy per year. It's particularly important to open up higher paid work to people who want to work flexibly so that they don't have to 'trade down' to find the working style they need and employers don't have to lose out on their skills and experience. The EOC's ongoing investigation into transforming the workplace is looking, with employers, at how to do this.'