The inflexibility crisis for working mums

HR expert Kate Palmer outlines the problem of inflexible flexible working and how employers can tackle this.

working mum sits at desk, stressed


More businesses are offering flexible working arrangements. At least, that’s what it looks like. Unfortunately for many working mums, the reality isn’t so flexible after all…

“Working mothers are being offered more flexible terms as a kind of sop: so you’ve decided to go away and have a kid? Well, when you come back you’re going to have to bend yourself around what we need,” says Sara Jackson OBE, visiting professor at Cranfield School of Management.

Many women are calling businesses out for their “fake flexibility”. They argue that businesses expect working mums to be full-time employees. That’s even if they work part-time hours and receive part-time pay.

As more and more jobseekers demand greater flexibility, how is this workplace “perk” really working for mums?

“Fake flexibility”

The whole point of a flexible working arrangement is that it’s, well, flexible.

For some, this might be having the option to work fewer hours or change their start and finish times.

For others, it might be working from home either every day or a few days a week.

We know that flexibility is big on everyone’s radar – not least parents, who juggle their work responsibilities around the school run.

But while offering flexible working is one thing, actually enforcing it and making it work is another thing entirely. It’s why many working mums don’t feel they’re getting the real benefits of a flexible arrangement.

Many women say that while their employer let them reduce their hours, they still expected a full-time output – just on less pay.

In Careering into Motherhood’s survey of over 2000 working mothers, 40% said they needed to complete work outside of their normal hours. One mother in the survey revealed that her workplace even took advantage of women coming back to work on a flexible basis.

“I was told that management loved it when women came back to work four days a week, as they knew they’d get five days’ work out of them for less pay.” she said.

Sadly, businesses like this are giving women the green light to overwork themselves. Which is only made easier by…

Working mum guilt

Overworking leads to guilt. Guilt leads to overworking.

And many working mums get the guilt from all angles. There’s ‘mum guilt’ for not being able to be with their children because of work. Then, there’s ‘employee guilt’ for struggling to manage their work commitments alongside childcare.

So what happens is that many of these working mothers feel they have to overcompensate by taking on more in work and at home?

In the Working Mums annual survey, 65% of working mothers agreed they have to work harder to “prove themselves” in the workplace. 27% also believed their workplace discriminated against them for having a flexible arrangement.

This is in spite of the fact that in another Working Mums survey, 85% of working mums said they felt guilty about working.

It’s clear that businesses aren’t going far enough to alleviate this guilt. And whilst flexible working is a choice, some may feel it isn’t a choice for them.

In the Careering into Motherhood survey, 38% of working mums revealed they had not even requested flexible working.

As Helen Willetts, director of internal communications at BT Group points out: “HR policies don’t matter if working mums don’t feel able to take advantage of the flexibility without a sense of guilt, that there might be implications for their career in some way.”

Which leads on to the next point…

Negative impact on career and promotion opportunities

Career fear is a big reason why so many parents are reluctant to have a flexible working arrangement.

There’s a concern that flexible working will have a negative impact on their career and promotion opportunities.

In the Working Mums annual survey, 47% of working mums felt that flexible working had affected their career progression. And 52% of those working part-time felt they had missed out on opportunities or training.

And the TUC found that women were more likely to work flexibly than men, meaning they’d be more likely to take a cut in their hours and pay.

That’s because there is still a belief that women should be the ones who bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities over men. Therefore it is more often than not women who make career sacrifices to have children. And whilst this is a positive and active choice for many, others may feel forced to do it.

Tackling an inflexible system

Flexible working may be on the rise, but if the system remains fundamentally inflexible, working mums will never reap the benefits.

Fake flexibility will continue to widen the gender pay gap and prevent working mothers from progressing in their careers. So, we must go beyond token gestures if we want to see real change for women.

It’s not enough to just have policies and processes. It is not enough to simply offer flexibility.

If a person’s career suffers as a result of working flexibly, then the problem lies with the role and the management. The role needs to adapt.

Mindsets also need to adapt. Because once culture changes, that’s when we can really tackle the other problems, like guilt, fear, and lack of progression.

More needs to be done to encourage working dads to take up parental leave and consider making career adjustments, to help lift some of the pressure on working mums.

Until then, society will continue to look at flexible working arrangements through a biased lens.

*Kate Palmer is HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula which provides HR and health & safety support for small businesses.

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