Deirdre Anderson is Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cranfield School of Management and our newest addition to the judging panel of the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards. The Awards aim to spread best practice in policies that support work life balance. Applications for the awards are open till 3rd August. Click here for more details. Workingmums.co.uk asked Dr Anderson about her research and her views on a range of issues linked to women’s career progression.
Workingmums.co.uk: How did you become interested in the whole area of work life balance?
Deirdre Anderson: I began studying for a Masters degree in Occupational and Organisational Psychology when I took maternity leave for my first child. That was a rather naïve decision (some would say completely daft!) and I quickly became aware of the realities and demands of working, juggling childcare issues, and studying. For my Masters dissertation I researched the social support available to first-time mothers and became fascinated with the issues of women as they transition into motherhood, especially if that involved returning to work. I then worked for myself for 15 years, so that I had the flexibility to enjoy my children, earn some money and have a career I enjoyed. So my interest in flexible working, women and work, and work life balance developed and grew as a result of those experiences.
WM: Do you think there is a danger that the borders between work and life are becoming too blurred with work slipping more and more into family time [there have been a raft of surveys recently about people working on their holidays, etc and several employers have noted that, for instance, people who work from home have a tendency to overwork] or do you think people will have to take a certain amount of blurring if they want to enjoy the benefits?
DA: Research certainly shows that boundaries between work and home have become much more blurred – inevitably so for so many of us when our jobs involve the use of technology, which can be a double-edged sword. So, for instance, I am fortunate enough to have a great deal of autonomy which means I can be very flexible in choosing when I want to work from home. But equally, I could be answering this in the evening after a busy day at work, because the laptop beckons – “I’ll just have a quick look” and then I get engrossed and a couple of hours go by. So the ever-availability of access to work means that we need to be disciplined in our approach, and ensure that we do put boundaries around different aspects of our lives. And depending on our jobs and on life events, that might require flexibility at different times of the year, or on certain days or whatever. Such flexibility might have to work both ways – my daughter’s graduation was something I wasn’t going to miss in a million years – and I had to change meetings to have the day off. On the other hand, when we have part-time students in for a week-long module, I might need to be around outside normal hours (and their lecture times) to have meetings with them, so might have to physically be in the office for 12-hour days. I have to plan accordingly. So if we have flexibility, we have to manage it through setting flexible limits.
WM: You do voluntary youth work – have you noticed in your work with young people, particularly girls, that there are any changes in the kind of career choices they are considering?
DA: I have worked in Girlguiding UK for 20 years and have seen many girls grow and develop skills and confidence in themselves and their abilities, through the fantastic opportunities available to them. The Girlguiding programmes for all ages cover a wide range of subjects and activities, and the girls are encouraged to try new things, opening their eyes to many possibilities, and helping them to define their interests. I think that many girls grow up with an ambitious sense of “I can do anything I want to” and yet as they enter their 20s they are aware of the potential challenges ahead of combining career and family. It’s a difficult time for all young people who are setting off on their careers.
WM: Are you in favour of quotas for women on boards?
DA: No. The research we do here at Cranfield leads us to the conclusion that greater change is needed throughout the appointments system in particular, in order for real progress to be made, resulting in lasting change.
WM: Flexible working seems to be a big block on women’s career progression. How important do you think it is to retaining women in the workplace and keeping their career progressing [if that is what they want]?
DA: I think flexible working arrangements are a critical part of the myriad of initiatives which support women’s career progression. I also think you are right to say “if that is what they want”. As women we don’t do ourselves any favours if we argue about whether it’s right to stay at home or right to go back to work. Of course, the reality for many women is that working is a financial necessity rather than a choice. Research is conclusive that being outside of the workplace for any length of time (beyond maternity leave) has a huge impact on the roles we can undertake when we go back, and on our salaries. Career breaks are a major cause of the gender pay gap. Flexibility facilitates women (and men) maintaining their career particularly at the stages of life where they have increasing demands from the family domain, whether that be caring for children, or caring for sick or elderly other relatives. Global demographic changes mean that organisations will have to become more adept at making flexible working arrangements work, and individuals may have to be truly flexible, rather than have a different, but equally rigid, working pattern.
WM: What research are you currently working on?
DA: The majority of research projects on the topic of work life balance refer to dual career couples or couples with a stay-at-home parent. Clearly this does not reflect the reality of vast numbers of families in the 21st century. Parenting and domestic responsibilities are acknowledged and addressed in the workplace through work life balance policies, but there is often little or no assessment of effectiveness or (often unintended) consequences for employees. Of course, recruitment and retention of talented staff remain a priority for organisations which seek to minimise any inadvertent practices which may limit the talent pool, particularly for those in professional/senior roles. My current study is exploratory and seeks to uncover the challenges in the workplace facing lone/single parents, and non-resident parents with access (involving their children staying with them for one or more days/nights per week).