This week I was in conversation with Shaun Scantlebury at EY about flexible working and why more, better quality, and better managed flex is a vital element of closing the gender pay gap. Watch the video below and join us on 13th June 2018 to hear even more!
Why asking for flexible working is the most difficult workplace conversation to have #flexibleworking #motherhood #worklifebalance
Four years ago, I was in the middle. I was in the middle of my career as a management consultant and occupying that make-or-break senior management level in a big organisation just below the glass ceiling. That point when the percentage of women in the workforce relative to men flips and women start to disappear from the pipeline to the top jobs. I was also at the beginning of my other career as a mother, my children were 1 and 4 at the time.
I learned that a lot of advice comes women’s way when they become mothers and continue to craft a life that combines careers with family care. Now in no way do I wish to offer any more advice about leaning in, steeping up or back or whatever, rather I want to share some insight from my latest research. Insight about how professional women navigate what remains one of the more difficult conversations to have in the workplace.
The one about flexibility.
What I mean is asking your boss for flexibility in working hours, schedule or location. Going part-time, home working or clustering full-time working hours into school terms maybe, even the opportunity to job share.
I have been studying this for four years at the University of Sussex and the book of my research, Women’s Work will be published by Policy Press in Autumn 2018. For one of those years I followed 30 professional women’s experiences of having the flexibility conversation and what happened next.
The women I followed are doctors, lawyers, civil servants, and senior managers in technology, operations, sales, and HR in finance, professional services, health, education and the public sector, and all are mothers of babies, toddlers or teenagers. Some had worked flexibly before, others hadn’t and there were some common threads to their experiences.
There are three points I want to make about why the conversation about flexibility is difficult.
For one it still feels like a career-limiting conversation to have in many industries, and especially when it concerns part-time working.
By seeking flex in working hours believe it or not, women are not actively seeking to torpedo their careers, yet plenty of research shows that this is exactly what happens. The gender pay gap for example, yawns open at 33% for mothers 10 years after birth of their first child in the elite sectors of finance and professional services, in which some of women I interviewed worked.
Despite mounting evidence that flexibility is what most working people want and for more reasons than childcare, flexibility is still not the default in many organisations and getting access to it requires good relationships with managers and a formal request. It is not automatic.
This tells you something about why the flexibility conversation is a difficult one. You are asking for something different, which instantly marks you out as departing from the norm. And, as good corporate diversity and inclusion training teaches us, we know that where there is difference, there is potential for bias, stigmatizing treatment and ultimately, exclusion.
My second point about why this is a difficult conversation is because in many cases among the women I spoke to, they really needed it. And I mean REALLY needed it. It wasn’t a nice to have. It wasn’t really a choice, it was a necessity if they were to successfully combine their responsibilities for care and their goals for their careers without either burning out or opting out.
When there is a lot riding on the outcome of a conversation it can feel overwhelming and unless we are prepared, our composure and our communication skills can desert us. Because it is not just a conversation. It is a high stakes negotiation, and this brings me to my third and final point. Under current policy in the UK and most places around the world, accessing the flexibility that you need at times in life when you need it is a negotiation, not a right. It is a request initiated by you and until that changes and flex becomes the norm, you will need to think through not just what you want but how it might be received by your manager.
Women I spoke to who achieved a flexible arrangement closest to what they wanted, had usually talked about it informally with their managers before filling in forms, and had really thought through how a 3 or 4-day week, or home working, or a job share could work in practice.
I don’t think any of this is ideal though. The ideal is when the organisation flips the default and requires a justification why a job cannot be done flexibly. You and your manager can then work through together how the design of the job – how its workload, how its relationships, how its tasks - need to adapt to make it work for both parties.
Unfortunately, not everyone works in an environment where all roles flex, or has an informed boss skilled in job redesign for flexibility. That is why I do what I do and research, consult and guide organisations closer to a inclusive, productive and flexible future of work that makes the most of women's talents.
Doing this will improve outcomes not only for women with children, for men who seek flexibility to share care with their partners, for anyone who is managing health issues or disability, for older workers seeking to adjust their work pace and load in mid and late career, and quite simply: for everyone for whom work and career is just one part of the many dimensions to our lives.
The Women and Equalities Committee of MPs published its report on the Gender Pay Gap in March 2016 and the government has now responded to its recommendations for government action to accelerate change. In a nutshell the government response appears to reject the recommendations for policy change and emphasises the anticipated impact of new mandatory pay gap reporting in prompting large organisations to deal with any gaps they might find.
This is particularly interesting to me because the pay gap bites hard for mothers and professionals who work part-time.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies published analysis that implicates motherhood in the gradual widening of the 10% gender pay gap to the gaping 33% - yes 33% - 12 years after the first child is born. The root cause is not about having children per se, but about the job moves that are made as a result. Women pursue flexibility in working hours so they are better able to reconcile their work and family responsibilities. For professionals becoming mothers in the UK, moves into less well-rewarded and marginal part-time jobs are common, which the IFS says diminishes their ability to accumulate the skills and experience that lead to promotion. The UK's position in the latest Women in Work Index points to the highest paying sectors being particularly inhospitable places for women, providing few quality part-time professional opportunities and the widest pay gaps - a staggering 34% in financial services.
I recently researched the lives and experiences of 30 professional women who are pioneering part-time and flexible working in the kinds of quality jobs that the Committee recommended should be opened up to flexibility. They are also mothers of infants, toddlers and teenagers and most carry the bulk of the domestic and emotional responsibility within their families. Recording over 100 hours of women's deeply personal stories explains how flexible working works in practice for lawyers, management consultants, bankers, doctors, civil servants, operations and sales directors, programme managers and general managers. The findings have profound implications for all those who work and for those who have a stake in women’s work - politicians, experts, employers and employees alike.
This research reveals a hidden truth behind the gender pay gap statistics and it is shattering.
Professional women converting their previously held full-time jobs into part-time jobs typically retain full-time outputs. In other words, they accept less pay for producing the same outputs as their full-time time (and mostly male) counterparts. Instead of viewed as discriminatory, most women in this study felt it was the price they were expected to pay in their work cultures for more personal control over their working hours.
This is a hidden insight. It lies behind the statistical analysis of hourly rates of pay between women and men. It points to a policy-into-practice gap that slows the advancement of women at work and sustains rather than closes the gender pay gap. It signals a need for action.
Seeing as government has declined to mandate that all jobs should be available to work flexibly unless an employer can demonstrate a business case against doing so, what to do? First of all, encourage the government to reconsider by getting involved in the Committee's questioning here, deadline12 April 2017.
Leaders of employing organisations can decide to do things anyway, but there is a significant risk that they may not and that progress will be grindingly slow. The challenge then becomes one of convincing business leaders that it is important, and guide them to the best ways of closing pay gaps, optimising flexibility, and maximising the contribution that women can make.
Working for organisations that value being good at flexibility will be beneficial to men as well as women. For organisations minded to change the defaults and normalise flexibility for all employees, I offer five ideas for action to strengthen their organisation's capabilities to implement, manage and sustain flexible working:
Photo credit: Ian Johnston
It has been a rather long time since I put a blog post up on this page. The lack of words on this page is not because of a lack of words, there have been plenty of words. My words have been directed towards my doctoral thesis about professional women's work and family lives. I am thrilled/excited/exhausted to say that the opus is now complete. So this post is a place-holder. A note to say that over the coming weeks and months I will be putting some of those insights and ideas from my research up here.
My Fawcett Society, Whistles and Elle “This is what a Feminist looks like” t-shirt arrived today. Oh yes I was quick off the mark with my online order and surely must be one of the first to receive it. And on Saturday how excited I was that it was coming. Less so on Sunday. I glanced at Twitter and saw a Sunday newspaper’s gleeful expose of potentially less-than-ethical practice in the manufacture of the garments in Mauritius. A shock exposure that comes only a day or two into the campaign and its high-voltage politicisation using Clegg, Miliband and Harman to model the t-shirt, and conspicuously not Cameron (which was his choice btw; his people said he didn’t have time).
Whilst Whistles, Fawcett and collaborators Elle investigate the claims of exploitation of low-paid, female migrant workers in the production of the t-shirts, here is the really pressing question: what do I do with mine?
I have shopped at Whistles, read Elle occassionally and I am a member and supporter of Fawcett so my many worlds came together in a t-shirt. I have a confession though. I don’t actually know where or how all the clothes that I buy are manufactured. I also confess to a small amount of self-congratulation when it is a happy coincidence that the garment I have chosen to buy is made from organic materials, or from the wool of happy sheep, or that some of its proceeds go towards something good. So I wouldn’t describe myself as the MOST ethical consumer in town, but neither do I have a wardrobe chock full of £1 t-shirts from brands-we-all-know-do-it-too-cheaply.
This isn’t a new campaign by the way. Fawcett have been merchandising the “This is what a Feminist looks like” t-shirts for a few years. I have got one of the old ones. I didn’t need a new one; I wanted to support the campaign. What is new is the collaboration with major fashion brands. Whistles was shrewd enough to spot a fashion moment, not for t-shirts per se, but for the rising popularity among their target consumers of claiming feminism as their own and gaining confidence in declaring it. The prospect of raising funds for Fawcett to continue to do what it does and to take an equality message to new places will have been motivation enough for the small UK charity to partner with the big brands.
Fawcett doesn’t own the feminist message and it doesn’t claim to. But it does own “This is what a Feminist looks like…” moniker which I think should be considered a brand in itself. Albeit one that now feels unlikely (without the considerable effort of the best branding brains) to reach its full global potential. It certainly won’t generate the sales if consumers with even a hint of a moral-compass guiding their purchasing decisions are as perplexed as I am about what to do.
It is possible that all three parties could have been hood-winked into believing the factory-owners assurances of compliance with ethical standards. This will all come out in the investigation that is going on now. In Fawcett’s statement the charity says it wanted ethical production in the UK. My guess is that it is perfectly possible to experience sharp-manufacturing practice in the UK, but perhaps Fawcett felt that the due diligence would be more straightforward and practices more auditable with a UK-based supplier. Nevertheless, once presented with what appears a fait accompli of Mauritian-based production, they did ask questions about ethical production and they did insist on assurances that standards would be complied with. They knew the reputational risk of not doing so. Whether the allegations are true or false, hypocritical or typical of the practices of big fashion brands, it feels like a small UK charity working for gender equality might have come off worse here.
Anyway, let’s not get confused. It is not feminism that is the issue here, which is what certain newspapers and commentators might have you think. The issue is the ethics and politics of 'charity' fashion production and how consumers don’t always purchase with their politics.
I think it probably makes me a hypocrite not to wear the t-shirt because of its questionable ethical provenance as this stance wouldn’t be entirely consistent with my own chequered purchasing history. But this particular purchasing decision of mine was with a purpose and intent. Not to wear the t-shirt feels like I am distancing myself from this branded feminist message that I was keen to support. Fawcett has said if the allegations prove true they will expect Whistles to withdraw the range from sale. Will waiting for the outcome of the investigation give me any more confidence in my judgement to wear or not to wear? It might do. In the meantime I might just wear my old one.
Very pleased to be a guest blogger for Fawcett this week on how mums and dads do workplace flexibility... you can follow the link here Please add a comment on there or on here and tell me what you think!
This new lunchtime reading group has been set up by friend and fellow doctoral researcher at Sussex (and hugely talented illustrator and author...) Nicola Streeten