Won’t someone think of the men?


Obviously I am not the right gender to be writing this post. Perhaps, it is even a bit surprising that I am. After all, I often write about the need for more flexibility for women, and how societal structures have held (and continue to hold) women back. There is much much much more than needs to be done in that space. There is plenty of research that shows the impact of a lack of flexibility on women in general and the organisations for which they could and do work.

But, what about the men?

My perspectives on flexibility for men in the workplace are informed from two perspectives: what my clients tell me about their lives, and what the data tells us more collectively.

The disclaimer

Before I start  – a disclaimer and an absolute recognition of the privilege that the lives I about to describe represent.  These stories come from heterosexual men with children. They are not representative of all men. Nor even of the men who recognise themselves as falling into that category. But the stories that I have been told are constant and consistent.

The stories

Men tell me about how their lives are so fully packed that flexibility in any form is a joke. That any time taken for themselves is often not particularly well received. How they go to work, and then after work they go home and take on the second shift. How weekends are kids’ sport and then more work. And perhaps some social outings that those that have partners will find themselves being roped into. Perhaps there is work to be done on the house or the garden. There there IS very limited or no time for them. That there is NO flexibility.

These men aren’t passive. They are not being whipped into compliance by their partners and bosses. They are leaders in their organisations. And for the most part want to do the right thing in terms of being able to support their families and their partners to have flexibility of their own.

The data (note that this is all pre COVID data)

Career penalties

There’s this from the Smart Company

The Melbourne Institute study found men who worked part-time in their previous role took longer to secure another job and were more likely to have to take a pay cut than men who worked full-time.

Men who previously worked part-time earned on average 10% less in the new job. This finding suggests employers attach a penalty to part-time work for men, explained by the fact it is relatively uncommon for men.

This data from CPA Australia:

Both men and women think working flexibly could damage their career prospects. 

31% of respondents report that accessing flexible work arrangements will have a negative impact on their promotion chances. 

And employers are more likely to grant flexible working conditions to women, with more female respondents being successful compared to men.

The Diversity Council says that:

  • In 2016, 63% of two parent families have both parents employed.
  • We also know that the number of working parents who are subject to a separation or divorce is still significant.
  • Demographics have changed and more men in the workforce are now experiencing higher levels of demand in terms of balancing their work and family/personal commitments.
  • 64% of fathers have a partner in the paid workforce and 31% have elder care responsibilities.
  • Workplace flexibility is a key driver of employment decisions for men, including young men, men approaching retirement and especially men who are both younger and are fathers.
  • Having the flexibility to manage family and personal life was in the top five job characteristics for all men and for young fathers it was the third most highly rated job characteristic.
  • 18% of men indicated that they had seriously considered leaving their organisations because of a lack of flexibility. This goes up to 37% for young fathers.
  • Research from Europe shows that what highly paid men want most to be able to take time off from work to be with their families

Research from Australian Human Rights Commission shows that:

  • 27% of fathers have experienced some form of discrimination related to parental leave and return to work despite taking very short periods of leave
  • Men are also twice as likely to have their request to work flexible rejected. One respondent was told “part time is traditionally only something we make work for women”.

Research from Bain and co has this to say :

  • Men indicated that the key issues were a lack of senior support and the negative view of working flexibly held by their peers and management.
  • “Whilst opportunities exist, the environment management creates makes it difficult to participate.
  • “The arrangements worked as agreed but I have felt judgement for using them”
  • “My boss told me I wouldn’t be able to get promoted working part time”

The small violins

Before the comments from women start, with angry comparisons to the lives they lead and small violin emojis; for true flexibility, it has to apply to all.

Otherwise we are missing half of the puzzle to make it work.

It is not fashionable to bring up the need for flexibility for men when there is still such a long way to go for women. But the two are inextricably linked.

How to make it work?

Bain and Co research has the following tips for leveraging flexible working:

Firstly, actively encourage and role model the uptake of flexible work arrangements and make them standard for every role, including the most senior of roles. Simply offering flexibility is not enough, the tipping point in employee advocacy comes when flexible arrangements are used.

Secondly, ensure flexible arrangements are working successfully for both genders. The author of the Bain and Co report has been quoted as saying 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,”

Approximately 60% of men surveyed are, have or want to work flexibly, but so far uptake is not driving advocacy, in contrast with the clear trend observed with women.

Organisations that promote flexible models for both men and women will signal a culture that embraces different working styles and is outcome-oriented (rather than a face time culture).

Such companies are more likely to make it work for everyone. As Craig Meller, ex-CEO of AMP, points out: “The need for flexible work is gender-neutral—it has significant advantages for men, women, organisations and economies alike. Normalising flexible work opens up new sources of talent and new ways of operating, and this is key to being an innovative and agile business”. It is only by ensuring that flexible arrangements work for men and women that we will change entrenched gender norms in Australia, retain the best talent in our workforce and increase our overall productivity.

Thirdly and most importantly, the right culture and active support need to be in place. When asked what factors would be most important in improving employees’ experience with flexible working, male and female respondents agreed on the top reasons: proof of the potential to progress one’s career; visible commitment from the CEO, the leadership team and colleagues; and respect of boundaries. Only if these are in place will employers benefit from the improvement in employee engagement and productivity.

And finally, organisations must ensure the right policies, technology and agile work environment are in place and working well. It’s essential that organisations provide clear policies (such as how compensation and promotion decisions are handled when working flexibly) and enablers (such as technology for remote working, ability to work from multiple locations and provisions for childcare). It is also essential that leaders throughout an organisation are equipped and empowered to implement flexible working in ways that enhance their organisation’s agility.

The good news

There has been a lot of change since COVID. There are many more organisations who are bringing out gender neutral parental leave and flexible working. And of course COVID changed the rules on flexible working overnight. Organisations that had absolutely said they could not offer flexible working changed their tune literally overnight.

The Takeaway

Flexible working is for all. Not just women.

If we want organisations that work sustainably, we need to address this as a holistic issue. Not as a chick’s issue. Or as part of our “diversity” strategy.

The Diversity Council of Australia has these further tips:

  • Reframe flexibility (as we have done today) to emphasise the business case for men to engage in flexible working and broaden the definition.
  • Structure work in multiple ways to respond to the diversity amongst men and women in terms of age, cultural background, life-stage, nature of work.
  • Foster an organisational culture that is supportive of flexible work for men and women. Encouraging men and women to engage in flexible work practices and share their experiences.
  • Develop and publicise senior male role models to break the perception that senior roles = no flexibility.
  • Address men’s reluctance to use flexible work for fear of career penalties by designing new roles with flexibility as a standard – illustrating success stories.

More Reading..

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