Why the flexible working challenge is key to workplace gender equality

16 Sep 2019


Flexible working and gender workplace progression are currently inextricably linked.
Put simply, women in the UK currently do the majority of “unpaid” care work and consequently populate more part-time positions than their male counterparts.

While the impact of flexible working arrangements is not yet fully understood, there is a clear correlation between part-time working and both female career progression and the gender pay gap. Add to this some negative perceptions of flexible working and societal issues; there are still barriers to overcome.

So how then do we address the flexible working challenge?

In the UK all workers have the legal right to request flexible working arrangements from their employers. However, for many different reasons, employers can reject requests, and in many cases, employees just don’t feel comfortable asking for it.

In a recent report and survey, the Government’s Equalities Office interviewed a wide cross-section of human resource management from multiple companies and sectors.
The commentary itself was thought-provoking and provided good reasons to be optimistic that change was on its way, although clearly cultural, societal and human challenges remain.

Female workers still reported feeling marginalised for adopting a flexible working pattern with fewer opportunities and progression. In fact, there was almost an acceptance that limited career progression was a necessary sacrifice for the privilege of being allowed to work flexible hours.  However to put this in context, some of this feeling was also perceived as being self-perpetuated, with individuals being almost conditioned culturally to accept the above as the “norm”.

Many HR Directors themselves, however, saw flexible working as a massive positive and a way of retaining valuable employees, as one HR Director surveyed commented:

“If you want to keep your workforce and you want to improve your gender pay gap, and you want to keep more women in the organisation, organisations need to wake up to the fact that they need to give flexibility.”

While flexible working has historically been associated with mothers, there is a growing consensus that the younger generation of workers expect flexible working to more the norm than the exception, which has given rise to a generational difference in attitude towards a 9-5 culture. However, it’s still worth noting that even millennials, particularly those working in traditional professional sectors, were still reticent to request flexible working for fear of damaging career progression.

Of course, the attitude to flexible working is not just driven by the views of company policy, but by individuals, teams and how they function, management styles, company culture and by society itself.

Every company is different, so there is certainly not a one size fit’s all solution here, but there are suggestions and parameters that may be all companies can benefit from.

The gender norm that flexible working is for women is still prevalent and the concern that flexible hours limits career progression has deterred men from uptaking flexible hours, although working from home itself was not seen as a barrier to progression for either gender.

There is however, a growing consensus that the more companies who make “flexible working” a normal parameter in their organisation, the less resistance and stigma there will be attached to it across the market.

Internally in organisations, it has been suggested that flexible working should be easily sign-posted for employees and managers should be better supported to envisage how flexible working could be adopted to work for them and their particular teams.

Perhaps, more importantly, companies and management need to have more open conversations with employees about work-life balance. As senior directors in companies often set the tone for their business and culture, there is also a thought that more senior leaders need to set the example of flexible working. More male leaders in particular that adopt flexible working need to be considered as role models with this communicated throughout their own organisations.  After all, it’s important that flexible working should no longer be perceived as gender-specific.

Overall, human resources in organisations need to be more of a conduit for equality and flexible working, formalising informal working relationships and normalisation flexibility.
If the policy is centralised and backed by company leaders, a flexible culture will be far more accepted and workable.

Although there are challenges, flexible working does not have to limit a company’s ability to run effectively, nor should it label individuals who want to take up flexible working.

Technology itself is evolving and is becoming a great enabler of flexible working.  So for many firms, it is no longer necessary for staff to be tied to their desk 8 hours a day.

One company surveyed stated:

“With the roll-out of this technology and what it’s enabled us to do … it’s allowing us to change the culture and the way we work.”
There is a certainly a wider realisation that providing flexible hours and contracts not only enables companies to retain talented female employees, but also attract candidates from the huge untapped “returner” market.
Recognising this fact, it is becoming an increasing trend for organisations to develop and run their own “returner programmes”. Equally, companies are being attracted to partner with programmes like Reignite Bootcamp, which provides high calibre, experienced candidates, who are refreshed, retrained and ready to take up work again.

Although we have a long way to go, the survey has confirmed that strides are indeed being made in the acceptance and normalisation of flexible working. It’s now up to companies, business leaders and society as a whole to embrace a different way of working and indeed how we as a society view a work/life balance.
For more information on hiring flexible working candidates through St Helens Chamber contact the Workforce Development Team on 01744 742333 or email workforce@sthelenschamber.com