Gender equality advocates have long called for greater workplace flexibility. They know that it is not simply a ‘nice to have’ perk or olive branch for employed mothers.
The research has long been clear: workplaces with family and caring-friendly policies are more likely to have women in leadership positions. More than this, flexible working arrangements improve workforce participation, productivity, retention, employee wellbeing and satisfaction – for women and men alike.
Increasingly, corporate Australia is recognising this. More organisations than ever now have a flexible working policy or strategy (79% in 2021 up from just 60% in 2015). The most common types of flexible work offered include carers leave, part-time work, flexible working hours, remote working and time-in-lieu.
However, uptake of flexible working arrangements is not equal. ABS data shows that women make up 68.5% of part-time employees in Australia – often due to caring responsibilities. For every one hour of unpaid care work done by men at home, women do an additional 48 minutes – that’s almost double. On the flipside, men are less likely to request flexible work, and when they do, gender bias means they’re twice as likely to have their request rejected.
Enter, COVID-19. The pandemic caused major disruptions to our ways of working, particularly in ‘white collar’ industries. It disrupted traditional models of presenteeism and proved to organisations that employees can remain productive from home. Many of us began to enjoy the hours we got back in our week (to feed the kids, do the laundry) that were previously taken up by the commute. Analysts began to hope this could be a watershed moment for gender equality (as well as for people with disabilities too, who have long fought for greater workplace flexibility).
However, as the months wore on and the data became clearer, experts began to warn that perhaps, the great move toward remote working was not a silver lining, but a cause for concern.
The Grattan Institute reported in the early months of the pandemic, women reduced their hours of work more than men, and were more likely to stop working altogether. This was often to manage domestic responsibilities, like home-schooling. Fathers increased their time spent on housework and childcare, but women still took on the lion’s share – doing one more hour each day than men, on top of their existing workload.
Workplace flexibility is essential for women and men, but it becomes a double-edged sword if not embraced at the same rate.
So, what happens next? Experts fear that as we start to return to the office, it will be women who continue to work from home – missing out on critical water cooler conversations, sponsorship, promotions and pay rises.
A survey by Deloitte of 5,000 women from ten countries including Australia found 94% believe requesting flexible work will affect their likelihood of a promotion and almost 60% who work in hybrid environments feel they have been excluded from important meetings.
It confirms what researchers, like myself, have long warned. Workplace flexibility is essential for women and men, but it becomes a double-edged sword if not embraced at the same rate. It is critical that leaders monitor flexible working requests as we return to the office, with a view to ensure a gender-equal uptake.
The Workplace Gender Equality Agency also encourages organisations to make ‘all roles flex’ by taking an ‘if not, why not’ approach; trust employees; communicate the benefits; set work-home boundaries; and encourage male leaders and managers to role model flexibility.
This last point is critical. If there is one thing you should take away, it’s to encourage the men in your life to request and role-model flexible working arrangements. To me, it’s the only way we will see a more equal division of labour at home, and truly realise the benefits that flexible working promises.