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The myth of women’s flexibility at work

  • Only if we understand it more broadly can flexibility help address deep-rooted issues such as discrimination in the workplace and the lack of representation of women in leadership positions.
  • Flexibility implies a more fundamental rethinking of the meaning of work and of the contract between employer and employee.
  • It starts with leaders aligning their teams and setting boundaries from top to bottom.

Since the pandemic, many employers and employees have come to appreciate greater flexibility in working arrangements. Flexibility is often presented as a women’s issue: when the insurance company Zurich included the terms “part-time”, “job-sharing” and “flexible working” in its job advertisements, for example, the number of women applying for leadership positions increased by almost 20%.

I’ve even noticed people starting to talk about flexibility as if it could be a panacea for the systemic issues that hold women back in the workplace. It’s a myth. Flexibility alone cannot solve deep-rooted problems such as the gender pay gap, discrimination in the workplace and the lack of representation of women in senior positions. It can help – but only if we understand it more widely.

work-life balance

I often hear the word “flexibility” used synonymously with arrangements such as working a four-day week or working mornings only. But I see it as a more fundamental questioning of the meaning of work and of the contract between employer and employee, which creates a real ability to control one’s schedule according to one’s personal priorities.

This may mean that you want to exclude meetings before 9:00 a.m. or after 6:00 p.m. Maybe that means you want an hour off each day to walk the dog. Everyone is different, and it’s not just working moms who want time for themselves – we all have our own unique circumstances. If employees and employers have a relationship of trust, work-life balance can be personalized like never before.

In my previous company, for example, I worked with a husband and wife who had similar qualifications and managed to share a job, alternating six-month periods. Sure, that’s unusual — but it illustrates how businesses can benefit from creativity in response to unique situations.

Implicit bias

When discussing gender flexibility, we must be careful to avoid implicit biases. It’s a sad reality that the burden of child and elder care falls disproportionately on women, but by specifically framing flexibility as a women’s issue, we risk reinforcing this norm indiscriminately.

Likewise, we should avoid equating flexible working with the kind of task-oriented, low-responsibility, low-wage jobs traditionally associated with part-time work. In the EU, women workers are almost four times more likely than men to work part-time. Interpreting “flexibility” as creating more part-time roles for women could inadvertently reinforce the glass ceiling.

Image: The Adecco Group

To avoid this, we should strive to make even the highest roles more flexible. I happen to like being full-time, but in principle there’s no reason my work can’t be shared. With platforms for bringing together email, workflows and documents in the cloud, it’s more possible than ever for a co-worker to catch up quickly on what another has. fact.

As more companies bring people back into the office, we need to ensure that new hybrid working models don’t disadvantage women’s career progression. Women are twice as likely as men to want to work remotely, and it’s harder to manage interactions fairly when some people are physically together and others are distant than when everyone is distant.

We are currently seeing a growing need to coach managers to get things done through hybrid working while ensuring that remote workers are not sidelined by their more flexible arrangements, given the historical trend of promotions to individuals. more present and visible in the office. .

The World Economic Forum is working with Cabify, Deliveroo, Grab, MBO Partners, Postmates and Uber to improve labor standards for the tens of millions of people who earn or supplement their incomes through digital work/service platforms.

The CEOs of the six companies signed the Charter of Principles for Good Platform Work, pledging to ensure that platform workers receive fair conditions, treatment, benefits and training opportunities.

Working with partners, the Forum is developing a holistic approach to clarifying platform responsibilities to workers who use their platforms, empowering platform workers, promoting their dignity and well-being, while supporting flexibility, innovation and the value offered by the platform economy to users and customers.

The Forum is looking for platform companies, regulators, labor organizations and independent experts from around the world who are committed to advancing labor standards in the platform ecosystem, to collaborate on the next stage of the Promise of Platform Work initiative. Contact us for more information.

This long-standing culture of presenteeism in the workplace is part of a vicious cycle: when men feel pressured to stay late at work, they have less time to participate in the life of their home, adding to the burden domestic care for women. Changing workplace culture could break this cycle, and everyone has a role to play.

Clear objectives and individual limits

It starts with leaders aligning their teams and setting boundaries from top to bottom. As the example of Zurich suggests, small differences in the wording of job advertisements can attract a new type of candidate. Recruiters may be more sympathetic to candidates who have had career breaks. Leaders need to set clear goals for employees and ways to evaluate them on how well they achieve their goals, not how many hours they spend at their desks.

Individual workers can play their part by speaking up. The idea of ​​’leaning in’ has fallen into disuse as it seems to blame women themselves for gender inequality – but the basic idea, of encouraging women to speak up for themselves at work, remains valid . This includes being firm about the boundaries you set for yourself.

But deep-rooted systemic issues of gender inequality in the workplace also require government action. The Nordic countries, to take just one example, are leading the way in laws that allow for an equitable sharing of parental leave, rather than maternity leave reserved for mothers.

Flexibility alone cannot close the gender gap – but it can help, if we recognize that this is not a gender-specific issue, and take more seriously its potential for radical reform how employers and employees interact and how work is done.

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