It’s day four of Australia’s first Flexible Working Week, and things couldn’t be going better. Our organisation, Diverse City Careers, or DCC for short, launched Flexible Working Week to declare a safe week for employees to discuss how their role may be done flexibly with their employer.
So, with flexibility on our minds, it was a surprise to read an opinion piece by Joseph Smith, Director at Optus, in The Australian yesterday, stating that “it’s not all about flexibility”. Mr Smith writes that as part of his Masters studies, he “conducted some qualitative and quantitative research to determine what factors were most important for the development of a gender-balanced workplace”.
The results? That the “professional desires of women were no different from those of men”, meaning that factors such as having salaries equal to that of their male colleagues and being able to work towards a defined goal trumped flexibility.
My first thought when I finished reading this was: were any of the women he studied asked how they’d feel if their partners were supported to work flexibly by their workplace? Flexible working arrangements are so imperative to women only because many workplaces find it inconceivable that men would also want them.
Women today are still disproportionately in charge of domestic labour and do the lion’s share of caring responsibilities, on top of their already busy work lives. And, because most workplaces are still structured to reflect a sole male provider reality (meaning work is the most important and sacred event of the day), both women and men lose out.
Without flexibility, it makes it extremely difficult to manage a successful career and family. Men need to be enabled and encouraged to work flexibly and take up more responsibility at home, so women can progress in the workplace.
At DCC, we too have conducted our own research to find out exactly what women want from their workplace. The survey’s findings comprised of 500 responses from women working with large and small Australian businesses, government and not-for-profit organisations.
As it turns out, the top two priorities of the women we surveyed were: gender neutral parental leave policy and flexible work arrangements. Both feed into each other and deeply affect the career progression of each gender.
Currently in Australia, less than 50 per cent of the non-public sector offers flexible working options. It is amazing that in 2017, when so many women are employed across a range of professional and other services, more than half of Australia’s companies continue to shape their workplace cultures as though nothing has changed since 1950.
This is doubly astounding when it’s been shown time again that more women in the workplace equals a more inclusive — and a richer, in monetary terms — society. For instance, 2016 research by PwC found that increasing the female employment rate in Australia to match that of Sweden could result in a GDP boost of about $162 billion at today’s values over the long run.
At DCC, we are partnered with more than 50 of Australia’s biggest companies, and the most progressive companies we see are the ones who’ve embraced flex for all employees. For example, Aurecon offers flexible working hours, a compressed work week, PT, job sharing and telecommuting for all of its workers.
These arrangements made it possible for some fathers who were part of the leadership team to share the care of their children, freeing up their partners to pursue their own commitments equitably.
At DCC, we try and do our bit for both women and men by making sure all the companies that advertise with us have either formal or informal flexible work policies. We recognise that flexible work is not exclusively for mothers; there are a whole range of reasons people want to avoid being chained to their desks, such as community involvement, side projects, volunteering, health reasons and other myriad reasons.
Most importantly, workplaces that choose to adopt flexible working policies prove that they recognise that an employee is not just that: they are a person with multiple commitments and responsibilities, and as much as they try to priorities work, life just gets in the way.
It’s also important to note that, while the article misses the point around the need for flexibility and what women want, it does break down the stereotype that women just want flexible work to look after family. There are so many other valuable reasons to want to structure your work day in ways other than 9 to 5, and companies that refuse to acknowledge this are doing their workers, and their bottom line, a disservice.
As for women wanting to be paid the same: of course professional women want equal pay, leadership and professional development opportunities. But we must recognise that flexibility is a key enabler for all those things, and that without it, both women and women will never be fully fulfilled in their work.
Valeria Ignatieva and Gemma Lloyd are co-founders of Diverse City Careers
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