I’ve been reading recently about the flexible glass ceiling: the idea that people somehow consider your abilities and experience lesser because, say, you work from home. It is something I have noticed a lot and it’s not just coming from employers or office-bound colleagues.
The general stigma is internalised and I’ve heard a number of people putting themselves down because they are working from home for various practical reasons. In the old days, they would possibly not be in work at all, so we have made some progress. But this feeling is surely a hangover from the idea that flexible working is/was some kind of a favour.
It still feels like you’ve fallen off the career ladder unless you have the structures and processes in place to enable you to keep progressing.
Like the whole women and confidence thing, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If you are surrounded by negative stereotypes, reinforced on a regular basis, they sink in.
One of the things that has really annoyed me recently is when people say they are stay-at-home parents when they actually work from home. It’s as if the work they do, which may be full time or more than full time, is somehow a hobby. I work from home [and other places]. I am definitely not a stay-at-home parent in the traditional sense which I would define as not doing any paid work. In fact, I probably do more quite a lot more work than I did when I was in an office – which opens up a whole other can of worms: the pay cuts taken for the privilege of working flexibly [due to the continued lack of good flexible jobs being advertised] and the guilt factor which makes you feel that somehow you have to be permanently working in order to justify not being in an office. See, I’m not lounging around in my pjs all day, watching Netflix.
All of it boils down to the same thing – stigma around flexible working because it is still mainly seen as a woman thing. Hence the need to rebrand it all the time. Not so long ago I was told flexible working was associated with part-time women. It needed a makeover to make it seem more dynamic because part-time women are clearly not viewed as dynamic. The other day someone told me flexible working was viewed mainly as working from home and was associated with children sitting on people’s laps and so forth, probably due to all the images that proliferate of mums clutching a baby in one arm and a phone in the other [which is the reality some of the time because working hours are not standard these days and we are nothing if not “flexible”].
Flexible working is just a way of dealing with the practical issues of modern family life. It is about work adjusting to reality. Full stop.
There are, of course, issues around visibility and collaboration with regard to working from home. Technology is helping with the latter, but humans are mainly social animals and face to face meetings have an important function. I speak as someone who hasn’t seen her very much missed brother in the flesh for over 10 years. It’s not the same on a whatsapp call. Moreover, one of the great things about remote working is very few office politics, but that can be a bad thing too unless career structures and promotion processes are more transparent.
Flexible working is not just a question of a manager ticking a box and agreeing different working hours. It has to be thought through, not just for the individual, but for every process in an organisation, from recruitment to support to promotion structures. Too often flexible workers are left to figure it all out for themselves and a lot of them have devised all sorts of ways to make it work, despite all the odds. I read a draft book recently which is promoting the idea of flexible workers as pioneers and role models for future working. That is exactly the case. They need to be listened to.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of workingmums.co.uk.