The growth of women in part-time and flexible senior-level jobs is a sign that they are breaking down the glass ceiling, says Karen Mattison, the co-founder of Women Like Us.
The London-based organisation matches mothers wanting to get back to work with flexible job opportunities, and Ms Mattison believes that "there are definitely chinks" in the barriers preventing women from regularly rising to the highest positions. "People are starting to get through," she says.
Established in 2003, the company, which has around 18,000 women registered - 7,200 more than this time last year - is seeing an increase in the number of flexible jobs that pay £50,000 per annum. "We are definitely starting to see the more senior roles coming through," says Ms Mattison. The firm recently recruited for a £100,000 part-time role in the finance sector.
"I have total confidence that women can break through the glass ceiling. The rise in flexible and part-time work at a senior level has been huge and is going to become much more normal."
The growth in flexible working has helped fuel a major shift towards women becoming the main breadwinner. According to a recent Women and Work Survey, commissioned by Grazia magazine (published in July), nearly a third of women are the main breadwinners in their household. Thirty per cent earn more than their partners and a further 19 per cent earn the same amount. The survey found that 67 per cent of mothers either work full-or part-time with six out of ten believing the better they do at their career, the better mothers they become.
Gillian Nissim is the founder of workingmums.co.uk, the UK's leading job and community site for working mothers. She says: "The number of women that are the main breadwinner in the family is definitely increasing.
"Moving forward, I don't think it will be just about women wanting flexibility. There will continue to be a shift towards women becoming the main breadwinner. This will take a while to filter through but it will happen."
Workingmums.co.uk attracts more than 130,000 visitors a month. It has over 80,000 registered candidates and around 3,500 new registrations a month. Mrs Nissim says: "There is a real entrepreneurial streak among working mums and a quest for flexibility. Women have careers before they have children. A majority of women on our database have more than ten years' experience. They want to go back into jobs that use their skills."
Why the increase? "Women are following and building their careers and having children later."
What's more, they both acknowledge that the recession has fuelled the boom in women taking up senior-level, part-time roles.
"There has most definitely been an increase in the status and skill level of roles that women are occupying," Mrs Nissim says.
Mother-of-three Ms Mattison, who was recently awarded an MBE for her services to social enterprise, believes the recession has definitely triggered a big push for Women Like Us. "Times are changing and they are very tough but I think that the hunger for flexible/part-time work from businesses and candidates is going to increase. Flexible working is the third way. I think it will increasingly become the norm."
According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of people in part-time employment increased by 147,000 in the quarter to reach 7.66 million - making up 26.9 per cent of employment.
"Part-time work is now at an all-time high and the number of those who are in part-time work because they want to be, as opposed to because they were forced to be, is growing.
"The challenge for us is to keep that going. Women who have been holding out for quality part-time or flexible roles are starting to find them. It's been the silver lining of the recession cloud."
But it is not just the employees who are benefitting. Major companies are realising the mutual benefits of flexible working policies. KPMG, for example, has started asking some staff to work four-day weeks at certain times. They claim that this measure, along with some staff taking a sabbatical, has prevented them from cutting the equivalent of 100 jobs. "There is a real gathering of momentum and understanding of the benefits and competitive advantage of having women and a gender balance within organisations," says Mrs Nissim, a mother-of-two who set up her company in 2006 due to the lack flexible working options.
Her website, which was shortlisted for the 2010 recruitment agency niche job board of the year, is free for candidates to register. Employers pay to advertise on the site and have access to the whole database.
Womenswear firm Hobbs recently recruited a head of marketing through Workingmums.co.uk. Other companies the website works with include HSBC, Sainsbury's, Morgan Stanley and H&M, plus several small businesses. Last year, Mrs Nissim launched the Top Employer initiative, an online platform showcasing top organisations which promote flexible working policies - among them are Citigroup, Barclays Wealth, Prudential and KPMG - and, more recently, the Top Employer awards, which will take place this October.
"The story for businesses is not just about women," says Ms Mattison. "It's about the business benefits of having part-time and flexible working policies. The big ones are doing it. They understand the benefits."
Ms Mattison is so convinced about this that she is planning to rebrand and expand Women Like Us early next year to cater not just for women. "We will continue to run as a support service for women but it will also be for anyone who wants to work part-time or flexible. Our interest is in stimulating the flexible job market. Obviously women will be huge beneficiaries but other groups will benefit as well."