How Flexible Work Could Boost Gender Equality

How Flexible Work Could Boost Gender Equality

An often-stated goal of organisations, and society more widely, is to see the genuine progression of increasing numbers of women into management roles and the senior echelons of organisation hierarchies.

Legal mechanisms such as the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 aim to support this goal by requiring private employers of more than 100 employees to report on the gender breakdown in their organisation.

However new findings from the Bain-Chief Executive Women Survey reported in the Power of Flexibility Report suggest that the key to gender parity is ensuring opportunities for flexible work are made available to all and that organisations support and encourage an employee’s right to work flexibly.

The survey shows that negative perceptions around flexible work discourage men from taking advantage of opportunities to work more flexibly when they are available and that this obstacle is hindering the progression of women in the world of work.

More than 1000 members of the Australian business, government and not-for-profit community responded to the survey about their use of flexible work arrangements and their perceptions of their organisations which was conducted by Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women Australia.

The survey showed that fewer than 50 per cent of Australian organisations have a workplace flexibility policy and that even where the policies do exist there are barriers to effective utilisation which work to ensure the desired outcomes and potential benefits are not fully achieved.

In addition according to the Report:

  • just 28 per cent of men use flexible work arrangements, compared with 38 per cent of women
  • Men are twice as likely as women to have their request to work flexibly rejected
  • 27 per cent of fathers have experienced discrimination after returning to work from parental leave
  • 7 per cent of men working flexibly are part-time compared with 16 per cent of women
  • The lack of senior support and negative view of flexible work among peers and managers is the biggest deterrent to men working flexibly

Source: Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women report: The Power of Flexibility

One of the key lessons this survey show that the right culture and active support are fundamental to improving employees’ experience of and attitude towards flexible working and in organisations where flexible arrangements are widely and effectively used, all employees are four times happier than in organisations with no flexible options.

However the survey showed that flexible work arrangements are not driving advocacy or confidence for men, despite strong interest in their uptake.

Bain partner and report co-author, Melanie Sanders said that by actively encouraging flexible arrangements and ensuring they are widely used, organisations stand to gain significant employee advocacy however this is not happening:

“There are barriers still in the way of men accessing flexible work which suggest that they are suffering the stigmas and biases that women experienced more severely in the early days of their use of flexible working,” she said.

Another co-author of the report Meredith Hellicar from Chief Executive Women Australia said role modelling by people in the c-suite is critical:

“If we aspire to adapt to the workplace of the future and the increasing desires of both genders to play meaningful parenting roles, then we need strong leadership from the CEO and active support from all managers and significant role models to make flexible working a success for men and women.”

Bain and CEW have identified several key actions to normalise and accelerate the success of flexible working.

Organisations must:

  • Actively encourage and role model the uptake of flexible work arrangements
  • Ensure flexible arrangements are supported and working successfully for both genders
  • Create the right culture and support employee priorities of career progression, visible support from the CEO, leadership team and colleagues, and respect of boundaries
  • Create clear policies around promotion and compensation when working flexibly
  • Ensure technology and an agile work environment are in place and working well

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald recently highlights the active role some working parents, specifically men, are taking to facilitate flexible work so they can take an active and equal role in parenting.

The article by Cosima Marriner interviews a couple of men who have engaged a professional paternity coach to help them develop the knowledge, skill set and confidence to enter into a negotiation with their employer about working more flexibly.

Speaking to the SMH the founder of Grace Papers Coaching Service Prue Gilbert said for all the freedoms men do have at work most don’t have the freedom to negotiate flexibility in their workplace conditions, despite the fact that this has become an almost non-negotiable condition for women.

Ms Gilbert said many men don’t even think about working flexibly until encouraged by their partners who want to resume their career after having a child.

“When couples become parents they revert to the traditional stereotypes of male and female unless there is some sort of intervention or support.”

Ms Gilbert said paternity coaches helped men identify which parent should be doing what in terms of work and family and can help establish a parent’s working and personal goals and the non-negotiable variables.



This Better Workplace Bulletin was first published in February 2016