Many organisations are adopting more flexible workplace policies to address work-life balance. This makes sense. Research has shown that organisations who embrace flexibility seek to do so because of the positive correlation with productivity, employee health/wellbeing and retention. It is also what the employment market demands. Results from a survey conducted by INSEAD in collaboration with Universum, the HEAD Foundation and MIT Leadership Centre, showed that 3 out 4 individuals, regardless of whether they were currently students or professionals, believed that flexible work practices will present ‘big opportunities’ for them.
These stats are consistent with a new Regus study which also reflected that 63% of job candidates would turn down a job where flexible work arrangements were not on the table and 41% of respondents said they would have remained in their old jobs for longer if flexible work was an option.
Yet, despite significant improvements in areas such as parental leave provisions and the known benefits that flexibility can provide organisations, the prevalence of discrimination against working parents is still a key issue in the Australian workplace. Research undertaken by FlexCareers found 1 in 4 women resigned because their requests for flexible working hours were denied, while only 11% reported having an ideal flexible work arrangement.
In the last 12 months, Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins met with over 1,000 people across Australia asking them to comment on her initial priorities for gender equality. Her report released in May, titled, ‘A conversation on gender equality’ noted –
‘We are still frequently hearing stories of pregnancy and caring related discrimination experienced by women. We also heard that in practice there remains structural and cultural barriers to the implementation of flexible work policies… There also remains entrenched norms in workplaces that prevent policies being adopted equally by women and men. A gap also exists between what leaders are saying and what middle management implements”.
It is important to note that women are not the only ones who want flexibility. Research released by the Diversity Council of Australia showed that having flexibility to manage family life and personal life was one of the 5 most highly valued job characteristics for men. Yet men can be reluctant to use flexible work for fear of career penalties. Theses entrenched norms were also reflected in research by Bain & Company which showed that men who work flexibly feel unsupported and harshly judged. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission despite only taking short leave periods compared to their female colleagues, around 27 % of fathers and partners have reported experiencing discrimination relating to parental leave and return to work.
Discrimination (against both men and women) on the basis of parental responsibility is unlawful. In the case of Hickie v Hunt & Hunt, the Fair Work Commission found there had been indirect discrimination against a female solicitor upon her return to work from parental leave. The firm’s group meeting arrangements excluded her, no accommodation was made for her to work part- time hours and the firms decision to impose on her a condition that to maintain her position in the firm it was necessary for her to work fulltime, was deemed discriminatory conduct. Interestingly, in 2015-16 of complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission, 20% of complaints were lodged under the Sex Discrimination Act with 40 complaints being in relation to family responsibilities. At a briefing we attended this week presented by FCB, Rachel Holt, Acting Director Investigation and Conciliation Services, Australian Human Rights Commission noted that in the last calendar complaints received in relation to family responsibilities was the second largest group to have increased.
There are a lot of outdated assumptions about flexible work and who is an ideal employee. There are many assumptions about the limitations accessing flexible work will have on your career. Many may think the “ideal employee” has no care responsibilities, is totally devoted to work and will work all hours. Is that really an ideal employee? Many may think that to be successful to advance to senior levels you cannot access flexible arrangements. The evidence suggests it’s actually not.Results cited in the case of financial firm Moody’s, “which profiled employees who have advanced to senior leadership roles while using flexible work benefits showed it didn’t derail advancement”.
It seems there is a divergence between what the employment market wants and for many, what reality actually looks like in this space. Organisations wanting to attract and retain highly skilled and valuable employees can no longer afford to ignore how important providing a good work/life balance has become for both genders and all ages. Flexibility, when it is implemented well, can offer a positive solution to a variety of workplace issues.
To engage your leaders and employees in understanding diversity issues, contact PEEL HR to discuss our Diversity and Inclusion Awareness sessions.