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.