What holds talented and qualified women back from progressing to the top jobs in big organisations? The latest academic and industry research says flexible working has a case to answer.
Flexible working is the opportunity to vary the hours, times and locations in which paid work gets done. It can be the hero at times in life when the demands of care or other responsibilities outside of work are acute: for example going part-time to combine care for young children or elderly relatives with paid work, or compressing working hours to release some weekday time for other tasks.
There is an issue of fairness when discussing flexible working. When flexibility is determined entirely by the employer, removing employee choice about hours and location of paid work, then it quickly becomes the villain of the piece. And this is what is at the heart of the controversial debate about zero-hours contracts and their proliferation among lower skilled and lower paid employees at the bottom end of the occupational hierarchy.
Another villainous credential is the association of flexible working practices with career penalties. Part-time work is one of many forms of flexible working, others include flexi-time, glide-time, compressed hours, home-working, mobile-working, or annualised hours, yet it is this long-time association of flexible working with less-than-full-time-hours, and hence an assumed less-than-full-time commitment to the organisation that hinders careers according to the new report by Opportunity Now.
Men and women do flexibility differently. The move to part-time work is a characteristically female transition and one which men are much less likely to make: 75% of part-time workers in the UK are female according to the latest
Labour Force Survey data. Men are much more likely than women to use flexibility informally and in ways that do not impact directly upon their availability and responsiveness to the organisation. So for example, CIPD survey data shows that men are most likely to vary the start or finish times of the working day, or to work remotely either occasionally at home or on the move. This is a reflection of many things, not least how the bread-winning and home-making roles are split within the family, but it is also to do with the unwritten cultural rules about time.
Time is central to professionals and managerial workers demonstration of commitment and success in their chosen fields. Long hours are a proxy for, and taken for granted as evidence of, commitment to organisation and to career. If a
worker reduces their time in the workplace by moving to a part-time schedule then it is generally assumed that they are not as committed to the organisation or to improving their position within it. Organisations simply find it difficult to see past the amount of time that their employees input into their jobs or the miles they put on the clock, when thinking about who is demonstrating the commitment that should be rewarded with promotion. It is unlikely to be the "part-timer" that is picked out of the line-up.
And indeed it might well be the case that temporarily someone may wish to take their foot off the career gas, but it is difficult when that worker seeks to press the accelerator on their career again, for them to do that by continuing to work part-time. They may be a full-timer in a part-time job in terms of their long-term aspiration to lean-in to their careers, to develop their skills, and to progress, but building a career whilst working flexibly remains challenging. A challenge overwhelmingly experienced by women.
Let’s be clear, all staff value flexibility and most staff are working flexibly in some way - 75% of employees according to the same CIPD survey. It’s how it is done and how the attitudes towards the different forms of flexibility undertaken by men and women drive organisational behaviour, that make flexibility a career hero or villain.
Many large organisations advanced in their human resources management practices, long ago made the connection between flexible working and employee well-being, and in turn between employee well-being and satisfaction and improved productivity. So now, organisations that want to get serious about pursuing a dual agenda of improving productivity AND dealing with gender inequalities, overcoming the flexibility stigma that holds women back and denies organisations the benefit of their talents over full and long working lives has to be first priority.
Exploring how to do that will be the focus of future blog entries.