Flexible work hours don’t work for men – welcome to a mother’s world!

Bain & Company recently published findings of its joint report with Chief Executive Women that women are more likely to benefit from flexible work arrangements than men, who are less likely to excel[1]. So, have barriers for women in the workplace eased?

Not at all, in my opinion. The barriers women face in the workplace are as tough as ever. When women become mothers they are still denied senior leadership roles, under-employed and taken off the talent track. The Australian Human Rights Commission recently reported that 1 in 2 working women experience discrimination either during pregnancy, during paid parental leave or upon their return to work[2]. Other research has found that whilst gender has a relatively positive effect on male career progression, a woman’s career is reduced incrementally as she has more children and that undertaking part‐time work reduces career progression opportunities even further.[3]

Women also face further penalties when it comes to pay. First, they experience the gender pay gap, where women earn on average 18.6% less than men. Then they experience an additional wages penalty when they return from a career break, facing a fall in earnings of up to five percent after returning from maternity leave and over ten percent if they are away from work for three years.[4]

The managers of several women I interviewed for Career Interrupted advised them that taking a career break to have children would be akin to career suicide. Maggie Evans-Galea, scientist, was told upfront in her first post-doctorate position that having a baby was a ‘career killer’. Lucy Roland was told her career was “done for” and that she was off the talent radar after telling her employer that she was having a child. Tracy Spicer, journalist and newsreader had to ‘fight like hell’ to regain her level of authority and responsibility when she returned to work.

More recent evidence suggests however women may not be the only ones that experience penalties and obstacles as a result of caregiving.

The findings from the Fathers’ Work and Care study strongly suggest that fathers also face penalties in the workplace when they take time off to care for children. Recently published in Career Interrupted, Samone McCurdy from Monash University found fathers are indeed interested in primary caregiving. However, these aspirations are unlikely to be realised for a range of reasons, including pressure to provide financially for the family (fathers are more likely to earn more), lack of access to adequately paid parental leave for men and the inconsistent support and promotion of caregiving leave and flexible work practices from immediate managers. According to the fathers in the study, these barriers pose a potential risk to their employment and career progression. In addition, almost all couples interviewed for the study considered the workplace was, on balance, more accommodating of women wishing to make work adjustments for caregiving compared to men[5] with fathers’ reporting their requests for work adjustments as caregiver were generally received less favourably than mothers asking for the same flexibility.

These findings corroborate those published by Bain & Company last week.

So, what is going on here?

McCurdy suggests that the discrimination and bias noted above may not necessarily be a gendered penalty as much as adherence to the ideal worker model. She argues employees lose their value in the organisation when they are unable or unwilling to fulfill the high intensity, full time, at the office worker norms implicit in the contemporary workplace. The caregiver penalties examined in organisations have traditionally been applied to women, simply because they have been the workers that reduce their work intensity for care. The fact that fathers also report experiencing these when they request flexibility for caregiving suggest this might be an institutionalized response to a reduction in work intensity rather than a gendered bias in it strictest sense [6].

As Bain and Co have suggested, access to flexible working policies for all, and uptake of these policies by men and women alike is good first step in eroding the differential treatment of women at work. This will reduce the strong association between caregiving, gender and reduced work intensity.

Policy and structural changes in the workplace are not enough, however . If managers still hold fundamental beliefs that women belong in the kitchen and men in the workplace, they are unlikely to support any request for fathers take up part-time work to share the parenting responsibilities. Even if they do, they are more likely to treat these arrangements as a privilege handed out to a few based on merit, rather than as a legitimate request from a working parent.

A more fundamental shift in society’s expectations is required. Research by the McKinsey Global Institute, published last year[7], found that if society’s attitudes and beliefs don’t include gender equality, little progress will be made in the business community.

Their research into Australian attitudes and beliefs found that 16% of Australians agreed with the statement “When jobs are scarce men should have more right to a job than women and ”29% agreed with the statement: “When a mother works for pay, the children suffer”. That’s almost one in three Australians who don’t fully support mothers who choose to return to work.

These beliefs and attitudes drive decisions that entrench the traditional beliefs and attitudes around roles of women as primary care-givers and men as primary breadwinners, which flow directly on to the workplace, entrenching gender inequality further.

Our politicians and policy makers are complicit too and need to take stronger leadership around this issue. Simply look at Australia’s current statutory paid parental leave policy. Under current government arrangements mothers are provided with eighteen weeks paid parental leave as the primary carer and dads a scant two weeks (both at the minimum wage), further entrenching out-dated beliefs and attitudes around who should be the primary carer.

I am not for one moment suggesting that women have to relinquish their role as caregiver. Indeed, the right solutions vary from family to family. Ultimately gender equality is about women and men being empowered to make personal choices about the lives they lead. Our policy makers and employers have the responsibility to create the foundations for these choices.

Women are way ahead in managing flexibility. They have had to struggle with it for decades. But men experience a doubly-whammy. They are discouraged from being the primary caregiver, and as they are often the primary breadwinners, there are higher financial penalties at stake too. Perhaps through experiencing the difficulties women have faced for decades, men can now join the chorus and demand their share of flexible working practices, alongside mothers.

We also need to apply greater pressure on our governments to provide equal opportunities for both parents to take parental leave, We’re not Robinson Crusoe here – just look at success of the Scandinavian policies in enabling an equal share of parenting by both parents. . Only then may we start to see part-time and flexible working arrangements become a normal and accepted part of the career path for all working parents.

[1] The Age, February 3, 2016, p. 10

[2] AHRC, Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review, 2014 https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/SWP_report_2014.pdf reported in Career Interrupted: How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks, Norah Breekveldt (Melbourne Books, 2015), p. 199.

[3] Bryan McIntosh, Ronald McQuaid, Anne Munro, Parviz Dabir‐Alai, (2012) “Motherhood and its impact on career progression”, Gender in Management: An International Journal, Vol. 27 Iss: 5, pp.346 – 364

[4] Ibid, Behind the Gender Pay Gap, p. 1.

[5] Career Interrupted, How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks, N. Breekveldt (Melbourne Books 2015),p. 206

[6] Ibid, p. 198

[7] http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/growth/how_advancing_womens_equality_can_add_12_trillion_to_global_growth