“Employers must address the roots of gender bias”

Liz Morris is the founder and director of Mayfield Associates, a gender equality research and consulting group. She has recently completed a two-year research programme in collaboration with Working Families and the National Childbirth Trust, to understand the experiences of managing the transition back to work after maternity leave. Workingmums put some key questions to her to find out how well businesses are equipped to meet the demands of a growing workforce of parents.

Liz Morris is the founder and director of Mayfield Associates, a gender equality research and consulting group. She has recently completed a two-year research programme, in collaboration with Working Families and the National Childbirth Trust,to understand the experiences of employees, line manager and employers managing the transition back to work after maternity leave. Workingmums put some key questions to her to find out how well businesses are equipped to meet the demands of a growing workforce of parents.
WM: How well are businesses coping with the need to provide flexibility for a growing workforce of parents? Workingmums notes that a third of employees are now parents and more than 80% of them will become parents during their working life.
LM: The last 25 years has seen a massive increase in the number of women working so that now almost half of all workers in the UK are female. Faced by a need to attract and retain female talent plus strengthened equalities and maternity legislation, many organisations have responded with some form of flexible working.
However, the origin of this flexibility has created a problem. Aimed at enabling working mothers to better balance paid employment with family commitments, the way in which flexible working is implemented can reinforce the male breadwinner/female carer stereotype. Something that is now in stark contrast with reality.
The seismic demographic shift has delivered a dramatic increase in the number of dual-earner/dual-carer households. The working man with a pinny-wearing, home-making partner, safely tucked away with the baby is now the minority.
This is a global phenomenon. For example in the USA working women now outnumber working men and the numbers of dual-earner/dual-carer households are rapidly rising in countries and economies as different as China and Canada.
Whilst research shows both fathers and mothers struggle to balance the conflicting demands of family and dual careers, in many organisations work-life balance is still considered a woman’s problem, with family commitments seen as a burden that gets in the way of profit. This sets up a vicious cycle that holds women’s careers back on the Mummy track while fathers feel frustrated and unable to combine active parenting with career progression in a workplace that demands unconditional loyalty measured by working hours. The gender pay gap develops and when childcare is based on a financial constraint it often seems logical for the lower paid partner to reduce their hours. And so the cycle reinforces itself.
However, there is a strong and growing body of evidence that shows that when the gendered stigma is removed from flexible working it can reduce work-life conflict for both fathers and mothers.
In so doing, employee engagement, performance and loyalty are increased and there is a more even distribution of men and women throughout the organisational hierarchy, increasing an organisations competitiveness and financial performance. Employers need to address the roots of gender bias in workplace culture to reap the benefits of engaging and retaining parents.

WM: What has driven the change towards a dual-earner/carer equation? And are businesses keeping up with this?
LM: The sociologists and psychologists might argue that the demographic changes in employment are caused by our constant desire to increase quality of life. This may mean career fulfilment for women as well as men and/or increasingly expensive lifestyles that need to be funded through the dual-earner/dual-carer model.
The economists share a different perspective. A high employment society is required to support our ageing population with increasingly long life expectancy. This brings with it an additional challenge of maintaining fertility and developing a childcare model that will ensure a future pipeline of workers.
The economists also note that it is not just a case of getting women into the workplace and encouraging them to have more babies. Those societies with very traditional gender-based roles (e.g. Italy) actually have lower fertility rates than those with a more egalitarian approach (e.g. the Nordic countries).
In addition, there is a strong body of evidence that the egalitarian approach is good for business as well as society. Increasing the numbers of women throughout an organisations hierarchy is shown to increase creativity, innovation and financial performance.
However, out of date workplace cultures means less than 10% of board members in FTSE 100 companies are female. There are signs that things are changing. In some industries, for example, geophysics, it is becoming more common for both men and women to work less than 35 hours a week and still maintain a career. In line with recent research that shows men also struggle with work-life conflict and want to increase time spent with family; the current ‘mancession’ has also had some unintended consequences.
Employers who offered a short working week by way of avoiding redundancy are suggesting that fewer than expected men are returning to a five-day week when given the opportunity.

WM: What is the secret to parents coordinating their careers? Can it be achieved whilst bringing up a family? And if so why is it that women tend to carry the double burden of work and childcare?
LM: Unfortunately, no magic formula has been found! However, what we do know is that working parents in the Nordic countries are much more likely to have both high job satisfaction and life satisfaction than in other European countries. They also tend to share childcare and housework. In the UK, many working family situations are based on assumption and bias. Regardless of the balance of household responsibilities prior to children, once a mother is on maternity leave she will take on most household tasks and childcare. The increased length of leave for women with little regard to fathers, has reinforced gender based stereotype, which is hard to shake off when the mother returns to work.
Getting the balance right is unique to each individual and their family. It will depend on your own values and those of your partner. A good place to start is to uncover your own and your partner’s unconscious bias towards gender and career. Harvard University published a free Implicit Association Test here. Select the Gender-Career button and follow the instructions. Then, when these values have been revealed, have a practical conversation about how to balance responsibilities within the family unit. There is a useful checklist in the Working Families guide for Parents on returning to work that can be used to guide a discussion about how to share responsibilities for family and home.
WM: Will legislative changes to extend a portion of maternity leave to fathers change this? And how can organisations reach dads who often feel dissuaded from requesting flexible working? Do you know of any innovative practice in this area?
LM: Parental leave in the UK currently favours the mother over the father reinforcing the male breadwinner/female carer role model. Research suggests that unless a proportion of leave is protected in legislation for sole use by the father then culturally defined gender norms will persist, meaning that employers will continue to see female workers between the ages of 18 and 45 as a business risk.
However, a recent YouGov poll suggests that more young men than expected say that they will take up shared parental leave, indicating that society may be ready to make a shift to which businesses will have to adapt.

WM: According to research flexible working has led to an increase in working/productivity. How can managers ensure that people who work from home don’t overwork? BT says this can be a problem. Sometimes this is done to counter the image that they might be slacking and because they are so grateful for the flexibility.
LM: In organisations where presenteeism is interpreted as loyalty then those with lower presence will often find other ways to demonstrate their commitment. This can include working long hours, sending emails very early in the morning or late at night or other self promoting behaviour. This might work for a short time, but ultimately long hours are shown to reduce performance, damage loyalty and motivation, and lead to resentment and burnout.
Clear job descriptions with SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound) objectives and rewards based on output rather than hours or work will help to avoid overwork or a situation where an employee is trying to squeeze five days into four.
However, as with many things at work, the key to successful flexible working is both a good process and a trusting professional relationship between employee and manager that’s based on mutual respect.
Increasing line management capability will help to achieve this, as will proactive behaviour from the employee to clarify and track progress against goals that are aligned to the overall objectives of the organisation.
WM: How can organisations support parents to achieve a good work-life balance and maximise performance?
LM: There is strong evidence that links work-life balance and performance. Engaging both mothers and fathers will benefit the overall organisation with increased performance.
Organisations should ensure that the business case for flexible working is clear and well understood. The policy should be clear and well publicised with support for managers to implement it effectively. Coaching or online tools can help an employee elicit their values, plan their career and align their needs to the overall business requirements to build a business case.
However, parents will continue to struggle and fear a blight on their career unless flexible working is championed at the very top of the organisation and integrated into the ‘way we do business here.’
WM: What does the future hold for working families? Will it all result in stress and breakdown or can a balance really be achieved and if so what is the cost to business?
LM: This is a hotly debated topic. If we do not change then there will be an ever increasing attrition of stress on working families which will impact the individuals, their organisations and our economy.
The recession has meant increased unemployment and less focus on the war for talent. However, now more than ever, is the time when businesses need engaged and motivated staff. Neglecting staff now may seem to have little short-term effect, however, increasing numbers of organisations are realising that building loyalty and putting in place a culture that supports a balanced life has a huge payback.
WM: Is Mayfield Associates specifically involved in research or know of innovative practice in flexible working as examples of best practice?
LM: Both in my corporate career and now as a researcher and consultant I have been at the forefront, sometimes bleeding edge of new ways of working in 26 different countries!
Flexible working solutions depend on the type of work involved, the business culture and objectives and the individuals circumstances and values. The building blocks of a good flexible working solution are a strong business case and an understanding of one’s own values, needs and career ambitions.

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