23 OCTOBER 2014

Flexible working is everywhere.  Surveys say that at least three-quarters of us are flexing our start and finish times, working from home occasionally, perhaps going part-time or taking a break, even clustering work hours in term-time, or splitting and sharing a job with someone else.

In my career so far I have done all these things and I consider myself pretty well-practiced at ‘doing flexibility’.  Starting out in the City as a management consultant my office was a laptop and phone and I worked anywhere, any time and pretty much most of the time.  All of that changed when I became a mother and moved into a part-time role. A short career-break and a job-share along the way, I now work for myself combining consultancy with research for a doctorate.  Not only do  I live flexibility, I research it and I advise about it.

My research takes a look at the relationship between flexible working and gender equality at home and in work. Quite simply, women and men ‘do flexibility’ very differently and those differences are most acute when they become parents.  Typically when mothers in the UK adopt a flexible work pattern it means a move into part-time work. This is a transition that fathers are much less likely to make and its effects are enduring.  There is plenty of academic and industry research that shows there are short-term gains in work-life balance from a move into part-time work, yet these gains are set against long-term losses in pay, promotions and prospects. Losses that disproportionately affect women since women make up most of the part-time workers in the UK.

Flexible working for fathers is much more like the pattern I experienced in my former City life, a bit of informal flexi-time (working on the move or from home) but the full-time working week remaining pretty much unchanged. So what lies behind these differences?

It is a situation that reflects as much about life inside the family as it does about life inside the contemporary workplace.  It tells us something about how women and men negotiate their roles in the family, and how those roles are performed in terms of who does how much domestic work and childcare. The gender pay gap and a legacy of lower earnings for women are reflected in family decision-making about who works, how much and for how long. Add high costs of quality, flexible childcare into the household balance sheet and a typical outcome sees the lower (female) earner reduce their paid work because it is somehow more affordable that way.

What about the workplace? Today’s organisation is time-hungry and there are rewards attached to the amount of time that employees feed it. I don’t mean paid over-time, I mean that time is a taken-for-granted indicator of how committed an employee is to the organisation. If we reduce the amount of time we give to our employer, then it is assumed (perhaps unconsciously) that we are less committed to the organisation or to improving our position within it. And then on top of all of this, the value-laden role of mother brings with it layers of cultural expectation and assumption about what women should be occupying their time with: working to provide materially for the family, making home life nice and nurturing the potential of their offspring, or both those things?

This is not necessarily the way that working fathers and mothers want it.  Fathers may well desire part-time work but are reluctant to initiate a discussion about it at work for fear of sending that low-commitment signal, or they simply don’t wish their career or their finances to take the hit.  Similarly mothers may want nothing more than to be absorbed and well rewarded by full-time paid work, yet find it difficult to extract themselves from the role of pivotal person in the household – the one who knows where all the children are, who is picking them up, dropping them off and who has what in their snack bag.

Flexible working policies that simply make it a little easier for women to shoulder the dual-burden of care and paid work do not constitute equality. There do also need to be parallel shifts in the domestic division of labour if women are to achieve genuine choice in the work they do, how they do it and the success they achieve.  More than ever, what happens in the workplace and in family life are linked and employers should not underestimate the impact of their policies and culture on the fundamentals of who does what in the family. The flexible working options they offer and the culture of acceptability they create that encourages both men and women to use them gives great power to the organisation to reproduce or redraw gender roles at home as well as in work.

I am curious to see what the future of work for mothers could look like if fathers were pro-actively encouraged to adopt different forms of flexible working than many have to date.  Perhaps then we will see more of the most important jobs in the biggest organisations carved into something other than full-time chunks. Maybe we will even see more women in them.


Zoë Young is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex researching gender, leadership and flexible working. Through Half the Sky she provides insight and strategy support to organisations seeking to change the way they work. She has two small children and well-practiced at working flexibly.

Zoë explores what gender differences in flexible working tell us about life inside and outside the workplace, and speculates about the power of the employer to influence both.