I’ve been speaking to parents recently about flexible working. There seems to be a split between dads finding it difficult to get any flexibility and mums who have managed to reduce their hours or work from home some of the week but have been sidelined as a result or are on much lower wages than before they had children.
This is the kind of thing I have been hearing. From one dad: “I would love to be able to work flexibly, but the size of our team and, unfortunately, my manager’s attitude to men taking time away from work for family mean that I have not asked. When I took Shared Parental Leave, I was the first in my organisation to do so as a man and this caused havoc! Nobody knew what to do, and there was talk from my manager of the leave being blocked. Thankfully, the law doesn’t actually allow this.”
And from a mum who took a lower paid flexible job after a short career break: “I’m earning 35% less pro-rata than I did before I had children. I feel that so many times I’ve been disregarded from roles/promotions because I am a mum. I’m bored, under utilised and sick of people saying wow, you seem to know so much! Yes, I had children not a lobotomy. If my flexible working was taken away I would resign and look for a better paid job. No use sticking in a rubbish part-time role if the flexibility has been taken away.”
The frustration on both sides is palpable and the story is all too common. Workingmums.co.uk’s annual survey of mums shows 59% say their partner doesn’t work flexibly and only 4% say their partner works part time, while a survey of dads shows overwhelming demand for flexible working among men with 73% saying they are considering seeking it, but 72% fearing their employer’s reaction if they do.
Neither mums nor dads seem happy. The problem is that the model of work we have is not fit for purpose because it doesn’t take into account life – the reproduction of the species/workforce, the caring for the workforce of the future and the general wellbeing of the workforce of the present, to put it in pure economic terms. Up till recently women did all that other stuff for free. Now, due to the cost of living and changing social values, both parents work.
If you have a model that does not adapt to some pretty major realities and you ignore those and insist on pushing forward with it, something is going to give.
Of course there has been progress over the years and more and more employers get the flexibility issue – although some have exploited it for their own gain – but not nearly enough fully grasp the need for flexible working to be totally embedded in their organisation, from how they recruit to who they promote. It’s not just some favour for mums who have supposedly given up on any hope of career progression. Our survey shows 49% say flexible working has held them back in their career and 54% of part timers say they miss out on career progression opportunities.
Employers who see flexible working as career death for women are shooting themselves in the foot. They have an army of experienced women whose skills are simply not being used or developed and an increasingly demotivated cadre of dads.
Having children in this country seems to be treated as an inconvenience, as a personal lifestyle choice, but fully understanding people’s lives and expectations is about sensible planning for the workforce of the future. It means looking at how to develop the potential of all employees while recognising the reality of those employees’ daily reality.
I remember going to a flexible working event way back. There was talk of the joys of working from mountains and beaches – which is great and it does help to change the approach to flexible working, presenting it as cool and aspirational. The cold hard reality for parents, though, is that flexible working is not just something to aspire to. It is an absolute basic necessity.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.