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

soren-astrup-jorgensen-229456.jpg

Almost every CEO or senior executive conversation we have seems to contain this proud sentence at some point  “We are offering flexibility – we have lots of mums, and even some dads now, working flexibly so they can look after their kids”.  And from there on, while it earns them ‘tick-the-box’ branding status on a number of awards we recognise this differently, we know this is the number one barrier to successful implementation.

Flexibility when implemented from this mindset –  justified and applicable for working mums (or progressively, working parents) is actually counterproductive. It does not work very well for those working mums at all.  It is incredibly stubborn to shift as it has now become a social norm, a mental shortcut, an Australian corporate landscape mindset.

Many organisations have launched and implemented flexible working through their D&I teams, and a lot of businesses still have the flexibility policy as part of their parental leave one.  The vast majority of conferences that have flexibility on the agenda are organised by “Women in ….”.  On the surface, this is common sense, as we all understand that this is one of the top issues that needs to be fixed to achieve gender parity, but I think it is time we change the conversation and here is why.

Before you throw your hands up in the air, and tell me how hard you worked to just get that on the table, hear me out.

In conducting hundreds of interviews with staff across our client organisations the same messages keep on coming up:

  • Working mums who are working flexibly – either part time, or leaving early – are extremely grateful for the opportunity, but oh my goodness do they feel guilty.  They know they have no choice – they have to use the opportunity, but they can feel the looks as they leave early to do pick up, and so they have learned how to silently slink out the office so no one notices, or their leaving loudly is: “I have to go do pick up, but I will be online from 7 again!”.  They feel like they are working full time “and then some” to try to manage the perception that they are not pulling their weight, and they feel like no one notices this. But they still go back to feeling “lucky”.
  • And then we talk to the rest of the team – who regularly say – “well, our company is very good at this for mums, but the rest of us can’t have flex approved unless is for a doctors appointment, or a dentist”.  “Why is my life not worthy of flexibility?”

  • Managers on the other hand regularly say things like –“ I need to know why someone needs flexibility. They need a good reason”.  And it is very clear, that as a society we have accepted kids being a very good reason...perhaps because our employment law states this.

  • And CEOs  wonder why we aren’t talking to their HR or their D&I team, as for them flexibility is a gender diversity issue.

My distinct impression from having spoken to so many people is that in our effort to achieve Diversity and Inclusion, what we have actually ended up with is EXCLUSION.  

In our fight to change the working landscape so more women can participate in the workforce [which would add a hefty $25Billion annually to the Australian economy according to the Grattan Institute] we have been treating the symptoms of the problem, rather than changing the landscape for everyone so it just works equally well for women and men.

In giving working mothers a tool to help deal with a challenging time in their lives, combining work and family obligations, we overlook that in approx 70% of Australian families there are actually two parents.

For over 2 million of those working parents both are employed. We have through our policies actually REINFORCED the bias that raising children is the responsibility of the mother, and therefore created an imbalance in the contribution employers perceive, men and women are likely to make to the business during their tenure.

We have created a perception that flexibility is a special dispensation for those struggling, and that cannot be further from the truth.  Flexibility is just working smarter to make your organisation more profitable, more productive, and your staff more engaged and thriving.

So, let’s change the conversation.  Lets stop fixing women, and start fixing working. Let’s take the time to understand that flexibility is just good business, and is needed by every single one of us inclusively, and the reason actually doesn’t matter….everyone is juggling something. We see helping women achieve parity as a welcome outcome in a bigger landscape of change, rather than the singular (and elusive) goal.  

Let’s #pressforprogress on flexibility and the way it is done. Here are our top three tips to move the needle:

  1. Understand the business case – the impact on your P&L - a lot of information on the business benefits of flex can be found here.

  2. Get outside of the D&I  or even the HR conversation – speak to the business leaders as to how flexibility can help in their areas. Future of work will require agile, distributed teams and independent workers. Getting flexibility right now, is building the organisational capability to work in this new landscape.  We explain this here.

  3. Design guidelines and build a culture within which everyone has access to flex, and no one needs a “reason” to work flexibly.  If they are getting their job done, and done well, why does it matter?!

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

'Get Bendy' Issue #2

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