For the last five years I have been collecting stories – stories of women crafting lives that combine career jobs with family care and who use flexible working patterns to do it.
They are women who are at the life stage when careers stall and they disappear from the pipeline to top jobs, and their stories are not ones we often get to hear. This is partly because in the UK there simply aren’t many opportunities for part-time or flexible working at the more senior levels, and as we know, there certainly aren’t as many women as men up at those levels in corporate and public life.
What women at the forefront of flexible working in pipeline roles think, feel and do tells us much about what works and about what needs to change in policy, organisations and the family to make career jobs more flexible, workplace cultures more caring, and men and women more equal in employment and family life.
Let me tell you about Emma.
Emma progressed quickly during the first 10 years of her career, faster than her partner who works in the same profession. But right now she feels that her career has plateaued and his is taking off. They have three children aged two, six and eight and depend on a combination of school, breakfast and after-school clubs, a nursery, a childminder, and her recently retired mother’s support to make time available for their paid work. Emma and her husband both work full-time and they always have. For the first time Emma is about to cut her working hours by one day a week and work from home a little more. She says:
‘I mean, I do what I need to do [to do my job] but I can’t do more, and doing more is how you develop your career … the day-to-day grind of family life you know? It was like someone had let the air out of the balloon. I thought, “I just can’t do this anymore.” Something had to give.’
Like most of the 30 women I interviewed before, during, and after their transitions into a flexible work arrangement for my research at the University of Sussex, which is published this month, Emma is making room for motherhood by choosing flexibility. And like all women, she isn’t choosing to end her career. She is choosing what she hopes will be an arrangement that offers a better work-life balance, and at that moment in her particular childcare and relationship circumstances she feels she has little choice to do anything else.
In Emma’s story, she acknowledges that ‘doing more’ is what makes careers. Giving more time, taking on more tasks, being more visible at work – if this is what it takes to advance, then people who have less time and who need to operate restricted schedules are inevitably marginalised. That career advancement is predicated on input of hours is a problem for gender progress; it works against even well-intentioned organisational initiatives to promote flexible working at more senior levels.
How did it work out for Emma? She got the work-life balance that she was looking for, right? Well, yes and no. Paradoxically perhaps, most women found that making seemingly small adjustments to their working hours – reducing work time by half a day or a day a week – found that it created more work for them. Work that involved redesigning their roles while they were doing them, compressing unadjusted full-time workloads into fewer hours, actively managing their absences that were left unfilled by the organisation, and tackling biased and limiting attitudes that make sustaining a professional, flexible, working motherhood feel out of reach. Sarah gives a good example:
‘After a few months our manager took us to one side and said, “Look, I might be a dinosaur, but can you stop telling people that you’re a job-share because they’ll think you’re a bit rubbish.”’
Many of the women I spoke to were the first and only people at their levels in their organisations to work part-time, in job-shares and from home or other places. They feel a terrific sense of personal responsibility for the success of their arrangement, both for their own continued inclusion in the workplace, and towards the collective category of women who consider themselves – or aspire to be – both professionals and mothers, not one or the other.
Women working flexibly in senior roles because of their motherhood go to great lengths to fit in to inflexible organisational structures, processes and cultures not designed with them in mind, often with consequences for their wellbeing, job satisfaction, and intention to stay with their employer. It needs to be the other way around. Organisations need to flip the default and ask why can’t a job be done flexibly and then do something about the answers. In short, women are already leaning in enough. It is time for organisations to adapt to meet them.
Dr Zoe Young is an organisational sociologist, writer and consultant. She researches gender, work and organisation with a particular focus on women in leadership and management. She founded the consultancy Half the Sky to work with organisations seeking to address the structural and cultural barriers that hold women back at work. She completed her PhD at the University of Sussex. Prior to this, she worked in HR and management consultancy for many years. Her book Women’s Work: how mothers manage flexible working in careers and family life is published by Bristol University Press. This piece first appeared on King's College Global Institute for Women's Leadership (GIWL) Blog in September 2018.
"...our manager said ... stop telling people you're a job-share because they'll think you're a bit rubbish"
PRESS RELEASE [for immediate release]
Why ‘leaning in’ is not enough
Flexible work arrangements can transform how professional women combine a fulfilling career with motherhood. But the options are limited, particularly at the higher levels. This needs to change for the benefit of women, families and organisations.
A new book by Dr Zoe Young (Half the Sky), is the first to go inside women’s work and family lives in a year of working flexibly. Women’s Work: How mothers manage flexible working in careers and family life, is published by Bristol University Press on 12 September.
Young’s pioneering research at the University of Sussex followed a year in the lives of 30 mothers of infants through to teenagers, working in a range of UK industries – law, banking and finance, consulting, technology, health, and public service.
All 30 women were managers or held professional jobs at that pivotal level in large organisations when men start to outnumber women, and women disappear from the pipeline to the top jobs.
Drawing on over 100 hours of interviews, Young reveals the complex hidden lives of working women and the lengths they go to so they can maintain a career alongside motherhood.
Across 30 deeply personal stories, Young identified three common themes:
“We need to demand more from our employers I think. It is not enough for them just to say yes or no to flexibility, managing how it is done is just as important” Olivia, management consultant, 90% contract, works from home on Fridays (occasionally), 2 children aged 2 and 4
Young proposes five actions for policy makers, employers and within the family which are essential to remove the barriers and fulfil the potential of flexible work arrangements for gender equality in careers and family life:
F L I P T H E DE FA U LT
Notes for editors
1. Women’s Work: How mothers manage flexible working in careers and family life will be published by Policy Press on 12 September 2018, price £24.99.
2. Zoe Young is available for interview. For further information and review copies, please contact Kathryn King, Policy Press, on +44 (0) 117 954 5952, or at Kathryn.King@bristol.ac.uk.
3. Case studies from the research are available on request.
4. Bristol University Press strives to publish world-class scholarship that questions the status quo, disrupts current thinking and reframes ideas in a global context.
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.