Flexibility the New Norm in the Workplace

By Yolanda Beattie

In recent years, flexibility in the workplace has become the new hot topic when it comes to workplace gender equality. In 2001, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) announced that the familial model of the traditional male breadwinner, who has a partner at home looking after the family, was no longer the social norm in Australia. The ABS revealed that in 2013, 54 per cent of coupled families in Australia had both partners engaged in employment.

With more women entering or returning to the workforce, employers who are leading the way on gender equality understand that prioritising workplace flexibility leads to significant benefits. These benefits include lower staff turnover, improved talent attraction, improved productivity and higher employee morale.

Workplace flexibility means creating more flexibility around when and where work is done, with a focus on outcomes rather than hours in the office. It allows employees to be more engaged in their work by providing them with more control over their work and family lives. Ways of achieving flexibility include adjusting work hours, job sharing or working some hours from home, to name a few.

While the changes implemented by some employers are positive, workplace flexibility is still widely regarded as a benefit afforded mainly to working mothers. Women are more likely to utilise part-time work arrangements, parental leave and other non-standard work patterns. But viewing workplace flexibility as a benefit for just working mothers creates a barrier to developing gender-equal workplaces.

“Flexible work arrangements must be mainstreamed and willingly accessed

by both women and men.”

In the past few years, significant changes have occurred in men’s work and family experiences, with a large number of men now revealing they would like more flexibility in their roles.

Men’s desire for greater workplace flexibility reveals an obvious generational change. While a generation ago many men had limited engagement in the raising of children, men are now increasingly searching for ways to integrate active parenthood with their working lives.

According to research conducted by Diversity Council Australia, having the flexibility to effectively manage family and personal life is one of the five most highly-valued job characteristics for men. The Diversity Council reported that 18 per cent of men had thought about leaving their job due to a lack of flexibility.

In spite of this, men are twice as likely as women to have their request for workplace flexibility denied. They are also less likely to make such requests in the first place. One in four men decline to request flexible work, despite being dissatisfied with their current work arrangements. Concerns about limiting their career progression and negative perceptions from colleagues continue to prevent men from accessing workplace flexibility.

Much of the research conducted shows significant barriers for men who either request or utilise flexible work arrangements. Until these trends change, the stigma – for both women and men – attached to flexible work and flexible workers will remain unchallenged.

Workplace flexibility is essential for improving job and career opportunities for women, particularly those with caring responsibilities. But flexible work arrangements must be mainstreamed and willingly accessed by both women and men.

To address this issue, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency has partnered with Telstra and Mirvac, as well as Diversity Council Australia, on a national flexibility campaign that aims to demonstrate how demanding, professional roles can be performed flexibly with the right attitude and employer support – and it focuses on men.

The Equilibrium Man Challenge is a micro-documentary series that follows a number of men as they negotiate and transition to flexible-working arrangements within their organisation. Each of the men has a different reason for adjusting their work hours, whether it is caring for their children, caring for parents, or a desire to have more time for hobbies or passions outside of work. This shows that viewing flexibility as assistance for working mothers only does not address the broader requirements of Australian employees in the workforce.

Flexibility on its own is not a silver bullet for fixing gender inequality in the workplace. When included as a key component of an organisational strategy to address gender inequality, it is highly effective in hiring and keeping the best staff. Any overall organisational gender strategy should include initiatives that address gender composition, pay equity, and the prevention of sex-based harassment and discrimination, in addition to flexible working arrangements.

Yolanda Beattie is the Public Affairs Executive Manager for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. She has worked in corporate affairs, communications and marketing in the financial services sector, and has worked as the general manager at a boutique public relations firm representing leading Australian and international brands. She has a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Sydney, and a Masters in Public Policy.

Feature image: David Martyn Hunt/Flickr