What women really want

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Last week was International Women’s Day and, like us, you probably saw a flurry of articles around pay equity, the glass ceiling and women on boards, among other gender-related workplace issues.

Many of these pieces probably seemed vaguely familiar. The same topics are discussed each year, yet little actual progress seems to be made. Instead of adding yet another voice to the chorus asking for change, we thought this year we’d take a step back. Rather than assuming we know what women want in terms of their working lives, or assuming that all women want the same things, we decided to actually try to find out. We sought out a diverse group of women at various stages of their careers and asked them: ‘When it comes to your working life, what do you really want?’

From business owners to the self-employed, from scientists to HR specialists, these women let us know what they feel is missing from their work lives, what they believe is holding them back from getting what they want and, most importantly, what they are most looking for in terms of their work.

Money, flexibility and purpose – these are all common responses to the question of what people want from their careers. But which is most important? For the women we spoke to,  the first two were the clear priorities, decisively outweighing the importance of salary.

As HR Director Penelope told us, ‘Choice is important. Not everyone wants to do a three-day week but flexibility should mean the opportunity to make different work arrangements that enable you to manage other commitments. Choice is about adapting to the changing circumstances in people’s lives.’

Megan, a marine biologist, concurred. ‘Usually, I would say purpose is my priority. However, having faced health issues over the last two years, flexibility has been the most important thing and a benefit that I’ve been fortunate enough to have in my current job.’

Zoe, a career coach and leadership consultant, agreed that flexibility matters. But for her, it is not as vital as a sense of purpose. ‘The other two will always be important, but feeling that you’re achieving something meaningful is definitely paramount.’

Most of our respondents agreed. Seven out of ten ranked purpose as their number one priority. Claire explained, ‘Feeling a sense of personal connection to your job and loving what you do every day – what more could you ask for?’

Of course, no one’s work life is perfect, no matter how much you might love what you do. We asked the women we interviewed what they felt was missing from their careers, and a clear theme emerged – opportunity.

‘What I need most is a job,’ said HR specialist Elena, who has recently made the move to regional Australia from Sydney. ‘Since moving, my career opportunities have become limited. I’m often deemed overqualified.’  

For Melissa, a senior publisher, it’s a sense of growth that she most misses in her current job.  ‘I love my job and the company I work for,’ she told us, ‘but there is only so far I can go here.’

Like Melissa, Megan also sees growth and career opportunities as the biggest gaps in her career. ‘I’m incredibly passionate about what I do and where I work but unfortunately there aren’t many opportunities to climb the ladder and to take on managerial or leadership roles.’

So what is holding these women back from reaching their career goals? When asked about the biggest barrier to getting what they want in terms of work, the women we spoke to gave a range of responses.

‘Nothing! I have JUST quit my job without a new one to go to – to give myself that time to make a calculated next move, and one that I’m sure will be the right one,’ said Kate, a PR and communications specialist.

Project manager Tess has a similar story. ‘I’m making the change right now, but before we made the decision my main concerns were finance and security. Without a supporting partner, I would've stayed working in my previous job. I also needed someone to kick my ass and say I could do more and deserved to be paid more, so having confidence to make the decision to change was crucial.’

Tess isn’t alone in finding lack of confidence a barrier to change. Melissa agreed. ‘There is a fear of finding myself in a worse rather than a better situation if I make a move. If I’m not unhappy and I like what I do, it feels safer to stay put.’

Penelope is happy in her current position. However, she does acknowledge a potential future problem. ‘A possible barrier to change down the track would be around the ability to maintain a career pathway and growth. At this stage of my career I am not looking to go backwards.’

So what do women want? Clearly, there is no single answer – each of us has unique career goals and needs. However, women are united in the desire for a fulfilling and purposeful career with growth opportunities. In short, what women want is what everyone – male or female – wants from their working lives.