Flexible Working Isn't Helping Gender Inequality – It's Increasing It

It's become a tidy way of legitimising the exclusion of women from certain career-enhancing opportunities, journalist Josie Cox writes.
Caucasian mother and daughter working at desk
Caucasian mother and daughter working at desk
JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

Beyond coining the terms “role model” and “self-fulfilling prophecy”, the American sociologist Robert K. Merton is perhaps best known for his work on the concept of unintended consequences.

One example of such is the “perverse effect”: when an intended solution to a problem makes it worse. You and I usually call that a “backfire”. Barbra Streisand might deem it a royal pain in the backside.

In 2003, the entertainer tried suing Kenneth Adelman and Pictopia.com for publishing a snapshot of her home on the internet. Before she took legal action, a mere six people had downloaded the photograph, two of them her attorneys. But the attention conjured up by the case resulted in over 400,000 people checking out her abode online. The Streisand Effect is a term now broadly used to describe incidents of censorship going wrong; when an attempt at censoring something actually draws much more attention to it than it would have garnered otherwise.

Granted it’s not an obvious segue, but this brings me to flexible working.

In 2014, all employees with over six months’ service were granted the right to request flexible working hours in the UK, regardless of caring responsibilities. The origins of the traditional constructs of the working world – the 9-5, the hour-long lunchbreak, the five-day week – can be traced back centuries but, for the most part, aren’t rooted in evidence at all. So the policy marked a long overdue shuffle into the future, particularly for women who still bear the brunt of caring duties but often can’t afford (or just don’t want) to spend a decade or more out of the workforce.

But back to Barbara. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch but there are subtle clues that – while not quite on a Streisandian scale – the policy might be backfiring, at least across certain industries and organisations.

In October this year, Laura Jones, of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, published an extensive research report on women’s progression in the workplace with a particular focus on flexible working. At a very basic level, her research identified an “implementation gap”. Scores of organisations are ostensibly committed to flexible working but don’t provide it in practice. And even when they do offer it, it’s problematic.

“We found evidence […] of the marginalisation of part-time and flexible workers – a phenomenon produced by a mismatch between these ways of working and organisational cultures which equate commitment with the ability to work long hours; and which assume that those who make use of these schemes do not want to develop their careers,” Jones writes.

In other words, if you ask to work flexibly, you’re likely to be considered less ambitious. And guess what? Although flexible working is meant to be a policy for all, women still account for the majority of requests.

If you’re not angry yet, read on in Jones’s report. She cites studies showing that, due to the nature of the law, the success of a flexible working request depends largely on an employee’s bargaining position, meaning that they’re much more likely to be successful if they’re considered “valuable”. Some of the lowest paid are most in need of the flexibility in order to earn a living and support dependents, meaning that the system as it stands is probably unfit for purpose.

Jones cites a separate study from 2018 showing that 32% of UK employees believe that working flexibly decreases the chances of a promotion, underscoring the existence of a real and enduring stigma.

At a top accounting firm, which was analysed for a 2010 study, the opportunity for working flexibly reinforced – even exacerbated – gender inequality because it offered a simple mechanism for determining who is committed to their career and who is not. A convenient and tidy way of legitimising the exclusion of women from certain career-enhancing opportunities, one might say.

Much research has highlighted the correlation between presenteeism and promotion and as such it’s perhaps not surprising that those working flexibly also often feel compelled to put in longer hours in order to demonstrate their iron-clad commitment. I hardly need to spell out what that might do for work-life-balance.

Culture shifts at a glacial pace. Unconscious biases are hard to prove and therefore difficult to eradicate. But education is the hope we have for powering progress because flexible working can, in fact, work. And when it does, it has the potential to stop women from dropping out of the labour market when they become mothers.

It’s paramount that managers understand the potential benefits of flexible working. It’s doesn’t have to be an administrative inconvenience. The option to work flexibly can enhance morale and empower employees which in turn fuels productivity. It has the potential to increase diversity, not only in terms of gender or ethnicity, but in terms of experience, cognitive strengths, individual skills and knowledge. At hearing this, managers should be rubbing their hands with glee, because the true impact will show up in the bottom line and for now, at least, shareholders still reign supreme.

Getting equality completely right is not easy. Ask anyone who’s honestly and sustainably trying to fix their organisation’s gender pay gap and they’ll probably tell you it’s an ultramarathon assault course rather than a sprint. But however sluggish true progress is, we can’t let anything jam us into reverse gear. Change is terrifying. Policies like flexible working are designed to improve our lives, but they can only do so if we embrace them and use them intelligently. Likewise, if we panic and throw a quick solution at the problem to save dignity, we’ll almost certainly miss the nuanced risks and opportunities. Spare a thought for Barbra.

Josie Cox is a freelance journalist.


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