"Can't your wife do that?" Why flexibility for all is going to be the key change for equality


A few weeks ago, I was working with an individual to navigate how he could fully participate in his own life, as well as fully contribute to his chosen career. In the prime of his life this rising executive is experiencing that both domains are thriving, fulfilling and important.  He had recently had a discussion with a leader in his organisation about his availability for a late night call during which he chose to be transparent and authentic and share that in the evenings he would be with his young family – that the nightly dinner/bath and bed routine was at this point in his life a moment of truth that mattered deeply, and so as a result he was starting the day hours earlier, getting through everything he needed to but after 6pm was offline.

His leader casually responded….. “Can’t your wife do that?”

Yes, this is an indication of poor leadership and basic emotional intelligence, however, we can't dismiss it so readily. The phrase is not an isolated one, I hear it in the context of my coaching work very frequently, and in our workshops about unconscious bias in the workplace, this is one that consistently reveals itself, bubbling to the surface as one of the most strongly held beliefs. It represents a masculine social norm that is deeply ingrained not only in our leaders but widely in our cultures and society.

Think for a moment about the disengagement impact of that casual statement. It is a very personal issue and imposing casual judgements on someone’s life and family crosses a boundary. It also indicates this leader actually doesn’t know them, doesn’t know what is important to them. We spend so much money and time on creating ‘belonging’ and ‘engagement’, a statement like that revealed immediately an inability to recognise that this person wanted to be an involved father, as a rising number of Australian men now do.

Through our research of >700 Australian corporate employees and managers it is clear that men experience more negative reactions than women when asking for flexibility and fear it more.

Men fear that their managers will perceive that they are not serious about their current role or future career progression, however it comes from their colleagues as much as it does from their seniors. It comes from their parents, their mentors, their neighbours when they break what is an unspoken social norm, the traditional role of the mother and the traditional role of the father.

We have noticed a very effective, albeit sad loophole for men - divorce. If you play this card then no questions asked you get flexibility without repercussions. As soon as men are divorced the magic bias is removed – the “can’t your wife do it” expectation is lifted during that window of time with the kids. Family breakdown is a heavy toll for families and society to have to pay for this bias.

Many workplaces have become acutely aware of how we speak to women about their ambitions and learned not to make assumptions. Men, not so much. We have created "returnships" (which by the way we  rail against) and targets for women on boards and in senior executive roles. We are heading in the right direction at a glacial pace and wondering why. I assert that it is because we are only looking at half the equation. 

There is a yin to this yang that we continue to overlook and will prevent us reaching the goal of modern, equitable workplaces that allow diverse people to be productive, collaborative, creative, innovative and all those great things at work, while still having a life outside of work. Whether this time is devoted to travel, family, study, fitness, hobbies, the arts or volunteering in the community it doesn’t really matter. Individuals, society, institutions and corporations all benefit in this elusive utopia.

There are things you can do to affect change in this area. International Women’s Day is fast approaching, it’s a time when we are unconsciously inundated with messages about gender roles through the issues we debate at this time as ‘women’s issues’, reinforcing gender stereotypes.  

So, I’m calling on you this International Women’s Day to take the pledge and implement at least one of these 3 things:

Train your managers to have proactive conversations with male employees about how their life and way of working needs to adapt for the long term when they become fathers

More than just the first 2 weeks, they can share parenting responsibilities, not default to the role of secondary carer to a female primary.  (Just like you do for women as they prepare for maternity leave).

Openly discuss the issue of unconscious bias – every human being on the planet has them, even high performing employees.

We can only limit their harmful side effects by bringing them into awareness. Help your leaders become aware of the bias they may be carrying about appropriate roles for men and women and make it clear that it is unacceptable for a manager to say to their male staff “Can’t your wife do that?”

Normalise flexibility so you don’t need to ask why in the first place. 

Everyone’s juggling something and making flexibility purely a women’s issue will fail, so will making it only for parents or carers.  Instead focus on the timeliness and quality of the outputs people produce, and whether their interactions and connections with peers, customers and other stakeholders are meeting requirements. If they are, then give all your employees more autonomy to determine where and when they do their work.

They are three simple actions that will have immense impact on the people you employ, their spouses and partners, their families who learn from them….and therefore over time the future generations who won’t face the same limiting social norms regarding who is supposed to bath the kids.

Connect with us to find out what flex could look like in your organisation or contact Juggle Strategies Co-Founder, Maja Paleka directly at maja.paleka@jugglestrategies.com.au

The way we talk about flexibility is all wrong – Let’s #pressforprogress by changing that

When it comes to trust, you reap what you sow. Here is what you can do about it.