We need strong leadership from leaders and significant role models to make flexible working a reality for both men and women.
Workplace flexibility is an enabler of gender equality, retaining women in the workforce and supporting more men to take on caring responsibilities. Several studies show positive connections between flexible working arrangements, improved productivity and revenue generation.
However, research by CEW and Bain shows that men are twice as likely to have their flexible work requests rejected than women. Currently 72.7% of employers promote flexible work, however only 5.6% have set targets for employee engagement and just 2.3% have set targets for men’s engagement.
Chief Executive Women believes that organisations have much to gain by actively encouraging the uptake of flexible work arrangements. Crucially, flexible arrangements must work successfully for men and women, and be underpinned by clear policies around promotion and compensation when working flexibly and a culture that is supportive and respectful of flexible work.
Occupational gender segregation leaves women more likely than men to experience unemployment during COVID-19 based on their overrepresentation in more vulnerable sectors. In many countries, the services sector is seeing large numbers of lay-offs, including in retail, hospitality and tourism, where women are over-represented. In Australia, women make up 57.7% of the retail industry, and within that 84.2% of the fashion industry, 66.1% of department stores staff and 71.3% of furnishing and homewares industry.
While employers intend to make flexible working arrangements available to everyone, there is a persistent belief that ‘flexible work is for women’. In a 2019 survey of 6000 Australian parents and carers, more than half agreed that “employers are less likely to support men to take time off to care for family than women”. In addition, 64% of respondents agreed “it is more acceptable for women to use family friendly work options than men”.
Men and women need to have equal access to working ﬂexibly, without negative judgements or repercussions for career progression. We know that women’s underrepresentation in full-time work can limit opportunities to progress in the workplace. Research also shows that if men are unemployed or reduce work hours for family reasons, they may experience a ‘flexibility stigma’, leading to lower earnings and limiting future career opportunities.
Implementing a flexible working policy is simply not enough to normalise and support flexible work for both men and women. A cultural shift is needed, breaking down stigma and negative sentiment associated with flexible work.