Flexible work: Men not requesting it because they think it’s a ‘women’s thing’

When one half of the population pushes for flexible working arrangements more than the other, you can see why certain stereotypes regarding who does what in the home remain.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in Australian workplaces as flexible working options continue their reputation as options for women – usually working mums – rather than men, even the ‘working dads’ among them.

New research from The 100% Project this week backs this, finding that men are less likely to approach their employers to discuss flexible work options than women because they believe, unconsciously, that such options are only made available for women. The researchers, Dr Fiona Page, Kristina Korlevskka and Frances Feenstra, find that it’s a good explanation for why men are struggling to achieve the work-life balance they desire.

And while men and women are equally committed to work-life balance, both genders believe their careers will suffer by requesting flexible work, according to the research. But then both genders also believe requesting such arrangements is only ‘appropriate’ for women.

Once again, it’s a matter of unconscious bias affecting the ways we believe we should work. While we’re often quick to blame men for bringing certain levels of such bias into the workplace – particularly those in leadership positions who may make assumptions about the women coming up the ranks behind them – both genders have a long way to go in addressing the unconscious bias that put expectations on men and women neither gender may particularly want.

Lecturer and broadcaster Waleed Aly provides an excellent foreword in the 100% Project’s report noting that men, just like women, want to see change in Australian workplaces. He finds it concerning that even if men break through their own bias, they may still be up against bias from a female colleague, wife or girlfriend.

“The outcome of this, of course, is that no one gets what they want. Men may not want to work long hours in full-time jobs, but doing so gives them an advantage over women who are more likely to have to take time out of their career to care for children or older relatives.”

As we’ve often heard on Women’s Agenda, we need to see senior leaders demonstrating flexible work arrangements in order to believe we can pursue flexible careers ourselves.

Recently, Nicola Mendelsohn demonstrated just how high profile a role you can take on while working part time, taking up the position of Facebook’s vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa in a four-day a week position. EY Sydney managing partner Lynn Kraus is another who’s demonstrated the possibilities of a part time senior executive career, explaining recently how she took a role after returning from maternity leave that she had no prior experience in – as head of human resources for Australia, NZ, Fiji and Indonesia, four days a week. Taking the role part time certainly didn’t hinder Kraus’ career and she’s gone on to further promotions and responsibilities within the firm.

It was also refreshing to hear from former Apple Australia managing director Diana Ryall who said she job shared the leadership position with the technology giant while recovering from breast cancer more than a decade ago.

Still, these examples are all very much the exception rather than the norm. And, more often than not, it’s still women sticking their hand up to make the request for flexible working arrangements.

Sustaining unconscious behaviours will see us all feeling limited by the options available. We need to continually strive for the cultural change to make it ‘acceptable’ for both men and women to request flexible work no matter what their life circumstances and career ambitions.

So what can we do? The report authors offered four key tips for organisations and individuals to act on:

  1. Consider if there’s an unconscious bias against work-life balance that needs to be addressed in your organisation/team /self.
  2. Open a dialogue about work-life balance with both genders in your organisation.
  3. Become a role model for others by requesting the work-life balance that you want.
  4. Encourage those around you to request the work-life balance they want.


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