Why are we still talking about ‘women’s issues’ in the workplace?
‘A lot has been done…but not a lot has changed.’ – Eva Tutchell, author of Man-Made: Why So Few Women are in Positions of Power
In the six years since the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards were first established, the topic of flexible working has inched closer to centre stage.
Initiatives like the Top Employer Awards celebrate approaches to agile working, family-friendly practices and career progression for women. New legislation has been published regarding the right to request flexible working and shared parental leave. High profile brands such as Virgin have been in the media as a result of their paternity leave policies.
All eyes have turned to flexible working, from the employers who are offering it (including our fellow finalists and the winners of this year’s Top Employer Awards!), to the employers who are taking it away (remember when Marissa Mayer halted remote working at Yahoo?).
Award schemes like the Top Employer Awards are a fantastic way of promoting successful examples of flexible working and sharing best practice.
It’s heartening to hear that the Workingmums.co.uk team receive increasing numbers of submissions each year. It points to more and more organisations taking positive steps to introduce sustainable agile working into their businesses. In short, it shows that a lot has indeed been done.
But, as we discovered whilst taking part in a Q&A Panel Session at this year’s Top Employer Awards, not enough has changed yet.
A key question at the Top Employer Q&A Session
Let’s back up for one moment. Earlier this week we attended the sixth Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards, where we were finalists in three categories.
We didn’t take home any gongs this year, but it was a real honour to be recognised for our family-friendly and flexible working practices, alongside our fellow finalists and winners.
Each year, after the awards presentation, there is a Q&A Session hosted by a diverse panel of authors, business leaders, academics and employment experts.
This time, the panel included Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds. Together, they authored the book Man-Made: Why So Few Women are in Positions of Power. Along with their fellow panellists, the covered topics from the benefits of paid career breaks to whether employers should put policy before practice.
What really stood out for us, however, was this: Throughout the majority of discussions, debates, negotiations and reports about flexible working in the public sphere, the issues are always related back to women.
There’s an attitude that it’s our job to exhaust our negotiation skills to wrangle a model of working that accommodates our caring responsibilities.
It’s up to us to stand tall against discrimination when we return from maternity leave, or to brush off the prejudicial attitudes that can hound a woman’s rise to the top.
It’s our role to resist the lure of presenteeism and to challenge the misconceptions that part-time = part-effort.
It’s clear that this needs to change. And the question put to the Q&A Panel was: How can we make these everyone’s issues in the workplace?
Halting prejudices towards part-time working
Melanie Forbes, CEO of Guidant Group and another member of the Q&A Panel, brought a new angle to this issue by asking: ‘What is part-time work nowadays?’
And it’s a timely question. In an age when technology has – in theory – released us from our desks and allowed us to respond to emails after dinner or to approve budgets before the school run, why should the number of hours you’re contracted to work define your contribution to the business?
At the end of the day, your contracted hours are for payroll purposes – not an indication of your value to the company or the quality and delivery of your function.
The change here needs to come from management and leadership teams to change organisational perceptions of part-time work. Part-time team members should be as much included in staff briefings and events as their full-time counterparts, and there may need to be a re-education throughout the company so everyone, from the entry-level new starter to the CEO, understands the company’s policy and attitude towards all staff, regardless of their contracted hours.
Transforming toxic working cultures
Flexible working can also fall foul of prejudices. There continues to be this myth that to do your job, you must be seated at your desk, in your office. And to do your job well, you must start earlier and leave later.
This can be a difficult force to counteract. It can lead to unnecessary feelings of guilt when leaving the office early or working remotely, despite the fact that when, where or how work is completed does not necessarily impact its quality.
To address this, there again needs to be a shift in attitude. A sift away from the idea that a physical presence in the office is equal to the output of a member of staff. A greater sense of trust and collaboration is needed, as is making use of the fantastic technology at our fingertips to stay in touch with colleagues, from IM to Skype.
And how can we make these issues matter to everyone?
Ultimately, we need to change attitudes of leadership teams, managers and even those starting out in their careers for a wide-reaching understanding of these issues.
We cannot place the burden of these concerns on women’s shoulders any more. Male and female employers and colleagues need to support the load too.
And we also – ending on a point well made at the Q&A yesterday – need to address stereotypes that it is only women who wish to adjust their working patterns around their families.
Let us not forget the many working fathers who would also seek flexible opportunities and happily acknowledge this. Nor the men who support their colleagues’ flexible or part-time working arrangements.
Let’s end lazy stereotyping. Let’s continue to share the examples of employers who have managed to achieve sustainable and positive working practices to support working women, men, mothers and fathers. And let’s trust our staff and colleagues to deliver, whether they’re working full-time, part-time, from the office or remotely.
A lot has already been done. This is how we can effect change.
Find out more
How would you define flexible working?
What really constitutes agile working practices?
What does a pool table have to do with company culture?