Women who are offered flexible working arrangements are more likely to move into senior leadership roles, but men who decide to do the same thing are less likely to excel, a new report has found.
The report by Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women found that the stigmas attached to men taking time off work to look after kids has meant that there’s been a low uptake of flexible working arrangements in large businesses across Australia.
It urges a complete rethink on the way male employees are viewed by their bosses when they ask for work flexibility, and also urges the federal government to consider tax-deductible childcare to encourage parents to return to work after having children.
The report, based on a survey of 1030 employees of large businesses (defined as those with more than 100 staff), confirms not enough companies offer and encourage flexible working.
Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency found that only 48 per cent of non-public-sector organisations with more than 100 employees have a formal policy in place on flexible working arrangements.
And Bain’s own results show uptake remains modest: just 38 per cent of females and 28 per cent of males surveyed said they used flexible work arrangements, and that even then the number is likely to be overstated.
The report defines "flexible working" very broadly as "an organisation allowing employees a measure of control over when, where and how they work, including working part-time, working from home, setting their own hours and taking a leave of absence".
Men not supported
Report author and former James Hardie chairwoman Meredith Hellicar said given nearly 50 per cent of households were dual-income ones, "flexible work needs to be the new normal".
Ms Hellicar, now the chairwoman of logistics company Bagtans and managing director of leadership mentoring firm Merryck & Company, said such work arrangements could help boost productivity. "It is not just about having flexible work policies," she said. "The real barrier to working flexibly is a cultural one."
The report found women who worked flexibly were stronger advocates in their organisations and therefore more likely to progress into senior roles.
But, despite men playing more active roles as caregivers, it found they get judged negatively if they ask to move to part-time or off-site work and are not supported by their peers and management.
One man surveyed said: "The environment that management creates makes it difficult to participate." Another said it had impacted on career progression: "My boss told me I wouldn’t be able to get promoted working part-time."
Australian Human Rights Commission research found that 27 per cent of fathers and partners have reported experiencing discrimination related to parental leave and return to work, despite taking very short periods of leave. Men are also twice as likely as women to have their request to work flexibly rejected.
Ms Hellicar said that if Australia wanted equal workforce participation at every level of leadership, both genders would have to be supported in sharing the caretaker role.
"We speculate men are 10 to 15 years behind [women] in adopting flexible working," she said.
Call for tax-deductible childcare
Still, barriers for both sexes remain. The report said the lack of affordable, flexible, accessible or tax-deductible childcare in Australia was another issue holding Australia back.
About 35 per cent of men and women returning to work part-time said that the lack of suitable childcare prevented them from working full-time after parental leave, whereas 22 per cent reported that the availability of flexible options was important in their choice to return to work.
The report also identified "lack of respect of boundaries" for staff who worked part-time. One person surveyed noted that "meetings [are] scheduled without regard to when I’m not working, constant expectation to join on my day at home".
"If organisations want to retain their top female talent, they need to focus on correctly scoping part-time roles and respecting employees’ boundaries," the report said.
Bain and CEW research conducted in 2015 found that 50 per cent of women working flexibly are experienced employees or junior to middle managers. This is the career stage where women usually drop off to have children.
It is a major factor holding back women from being appointed to company boards and leadership positions (the 2015 research said that despite women graduating from universities in higher numbers than men, female executives accounted for less than 15 per cent of senior management positions).
Westpac, Telstra benefit from flexibility
The report singles out Westpac and Telstra as companies championing flexible working.
Westpac chief executive Brian Hartzer has said flexibility removes barriers to success: "If people have the flexibility to manage their personal commitments, they are more likely to bring their whole selves to work every day. And that means they’re more likely to do their best work and exceed customer expectations."
More than 63 per cent of Westpac employees now work flexibly thanks to its "All in Flex" campaign launched in June last year, which the company’s management sees as key to meeting a women-in-leadership target of 50 per cent by 2017.
And Telstra’s "All Roles Flex" policy has seen the company’s female representation rise to 42.9 per cent, up from 36.7 per cent last year.
The number of women joining Telstra exceeds the number of women leaving for the eighth successive quarter and Telstra reports the number of male managers at Telstra taking primary parental leave increased threefold in the past year from 0.8 per cent to 2.3 per cent.
The report suggests four actions to encourage greater uptake including making working flexibly the standard for every role, ensuring arrangements are working successfully for both women and men, creating the right culture and active support in place, a strong commitment from the CEO and leadership team and clear policies to assist in the use of technology and an agile work environment.