The hidden toil of making a success of flexible working

Women are often left to make flexible working work and are left exhausted by the process, says Zoe Young’s book Women’s Work.

working mum sits at desk, stressed


The hidden work women put into making flexible working work needs to be made visible and employers should take responsibility for flexible job design if the workplace is to be transformed, according to an academic study.

Zoe Young’s book Women’s Work take the responsibility for making work and family function and how the effort involved in doing so is not recognised or valued by employers or society. Young says that flexible working is seen as essentially a private issue requiring individual solutions. Young argues, however, that “the hidden work” behind flexible working should be made visible. She writes: “Women’s quiet, diligent endeavours to implement their [flexible work] arrangements with minimal inconvenience to others at work makes their considerable effort disappear. This further preserves the fixed and unaccommodating ‘nature of the job’ rather than transforming it and the ways it is possible to perform it.”

The book is based on an in-depth study of 30 professional working mums, very few of whom share childcare equally with their partner despite the fact that they have been brought up to believe in egalitarianism. The schism between that and the reality they are living where they fall into traditional gendered patterns has an emotional cost and puts pressure on the women’s relationships, says Young.

Compromised choices

Despite progress, the book says women still feel it is their responsibility to manage family life and careers and it holds them back and means their choices are compromised.  “The particular working patterns women arrive at in professional and managerial jobs represent a pragmatic and negotiated settlement of multiple ideological and practical pulls and incentives,” writes Young. It’s all about compromise.

Very few share childcare equally with their partner even though they have been brought up to believe in egalitarianism. The schism between that and the reality they were living came with an emotional cost and put pressure on their relationships, says Young. She says: “Little, it seems, has changed in couples’ family practices after many years of gender progress in employment.”

Flexible working allows them to have some control over their hours, but they are often left to manage it on their own. Young points out the skills needed to make flexible working work – to craft a job. They include job insight and considerable management competence. This women learn through trial and error on the job and sacrificing things such as personal development, training, social activities, networking and food and rest breaks. Working this intensively, says Young, can over time ‘drain jobs of their meaning’ and women of enthusiasm and energy for their jobs.

Often she found women who were working part time were working over their hours and presenting the facade of full-time availability, meaning their overall pay per hour was significantly reduced. They did not see this as discriminatory and justified it because it provided “a buffer” which meant they felt they had more control over their private time. Nevertheless, it affected their promotion chances, as did sacrificing networking and personal development. The emotional, physical and mental exhaustion of bearing the responsibility for making flexible work work and the need to constantly adapt to changing circumstances also made women less likely to focus on career advancement.

Young writes: “Finding themselves managing full-time or near-to-full-time workloads in part-time hours and restricted schedules left those who also carry the domestic, emotional and caring load at home feeling that they are ‘leaning-in’ so far that they are falling over.”

Balance is social

She says women who feel unsupported in transition to flexible working are more likely to question whether they should stay in their job. She adds that women are very aware that their need for flexibility will change over time and that current flexible working legislation, which means you can only change a work pattern every year, is not therefore fit for purpose.

Young says job shares which allow women some control over their hours and can be an effective interim measure for employers seeking to rethink how work is valued. However, she adds that job shares do not fundamentally shift thinking about the standard full-time model of work.

For her what is needed is for employers to share the thinking about job design and not expect individual women to make it work, to rethink how work is done and to offer flexibility from day one in a flexible culture which recognises the different and changing demands workers face.

Finally, Young says that the state and employers need to do more to encourage men to share domestic responsibilities more. She states: “Balance is social. It is collective. It means balancing the demands and rewards of work and childcare between partners-in-parenting and balancing the responsibility for crafting flexible jobs that fit into real lives between employer and employee.”

*Women’s Work is published by Bristol University Press.

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