Mind the gap: Why more work flexibility for men could create pay parity for women

parental leave for men.

More men are taking paid parental leave than ever before.

It’s been said ‘real men don’t flex’. It’s is a myth embedded in antiquated views of fatherhood and societal norms reinforcing gender normative stereotypes. It’s time for employers and leaders to step up to close the gender flex gap.

For many years we have been focused on removing barriers to women’s pay and progression but it’s time to champion the broader structural and cultural change needed to close the gender flex gap and the gender pay gap that still ensue.

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), 70% of workplaces have a flexible work policy in place, yet only 2% have set targets for men’s engagement in flexible work. The perception that flexible work is for women and mothers only is highly problematic for both genders.

Men are twice as likely as women to have their flexible work requests denied. When parental leave or flexible work is accessed, 27% of men experience discrimination, often based on the perception that they are ‘less dedicated’ to their careers. Men are also less likely to take parental leave that builds a powerful and necessary early connection with children, and develops skills in caring for them. This means the domain of child care remains a mystery land reserved for mothers, further perpetuating the status quo.

The result is that women take on disproportionate responsibility for housekeeping, child and elder care, and the impacts on their careers are monumental. Only 42% of women return to work within two years of having a baby. This extended absence from the workforce significantly affects future pay and progression, as previously reported on by Hall & Wilcox.

For as long as gender stigma continues to plague flexible work, women will be forced to opt out of certain careers and be penalised by the gender pay gap. A 2019 report by the Australian government has confirmed that women will always be at a disadvantage unless flexible work is made available to everyone.

Facts and figures

NASTEM modelling has shown that a 25-year-old woman who goes on to work for an average of 45 years is expected to earn $1.9 million, however this plummets to $1.3 million if she has children. In comparison, a man in the same position will earn $2 million but can expect an increase to $2.5 million if he has children. These figures indicate that traditional gender roles and structural inequalities continue to perpetuate in Australian workplaces.

Too often, the default for heterosexual couples with children is that the father is the primary breadwinner and the mother is the primary caregiver. Besides the stigma, the choice about which parent will access flexible work is also likely related to financial considerations. A father is unlikely to work part-time if a full-time working mother is not able to earn the same as he would.

However, Australia has one of the highest levels of educated women across OECD countries. In 2018, 59% of young women were tertiary educated compared to 44% of young men. Why has this level of education not translated into better labour market participation and earnings? The problem stems partly from women’s unemployment or concentration in part-time roles due to a lack of support for flexible work. This often leaves women in more precarious roles, more likely to step back when their families (encompassing children and elderly parents) need care and, in turn, more likely to lose their jobs or find their hours reduced in times of crisis as previously reported.

Employers are not making full use of the skills, qualifications and experience of working mothers, leading to a lack of career progression and the solidification of the gender pay gap. In turn, this means men are less likely to access flexible work when their partners are simply not given the same financial opportunities that they are.

We need to emphasise the earning potential of women and how families can continue to create wealth with either the mother as the primary breadwinner or looking at the collective wealth and potential of the family unit — and how collaborative efforts can be made to access parental leave and flexible work by both parents to maximise the family’s potential.

To enable this, workplaces and leaders must support both men and women with family responsibilities and ensure there is no career penalty for accessing flexible work.

Redesigning roles

A major cause of the gender flex gap is the lack of creativity in job design and the perseverance of the status quo. Particularly in leadership roles, individuals are expected to be face-to-face and in the office from dawn to dusk if they are to be successful, barring many women from reaching these positions and often preventing men from accessing flexible work.

This model stems from a time-based measure of success, rather than an outcomes based one. By this metric, it is easy to judge that someone leaving the office 30 minutes early for the school pick up is ‘less dedicated’ to their job. However, presenteeism is on the out: gone are the days where we need to be chained to our desks to deliver. Instead of time, we should be measuring productivity and deliverables during hours worked, helping to level the playing field for those working flexibly.

The solution must come from the top down. Culturally, leaders can start by modelling flexible work themselves. Let staff know that there is no need to flex by stealth — this is detrimental to the normalisation of these arrangements. Flexible work can be the norm rather than the exception to the rule.

Not just for carers

Another way to mainstream flexible work for both genders is to offer flexibility as a means of balancing work with other interests or commitments rather than just being an option for parents and by default, women.

While currently under section 65 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) an employer is only required to consider a request to work flexibly on a discrete number of grounds, Australian workplaces can eventually transition to a point where no reason is needed for a request to work flexibly. If an employee makes a proposal and that proposal works for the business, employers shouldn’t be asking why but rather – why not? If flexibility is mainstreamed, it’s unlikely those accessing it will be prejudiced or adversely affected in their pay or progression.

Closing the gap

The link between flexible work, the gender pay gap and retention of women in the workforce is clear. Without men increasing caring responsibilities, women will always be limited in their ability to progress in the workforce.

Trying to “have it all”, while doing it all is an impossible aspiration that leads to too many women prematurely withdrawing from the workforce or finding themselves in precarious employment.

Changing policies and organisational approaches on parental leave is one part of the solution. This is demonstrated by key findings of WGEA on Gender Equitable Parental leave that the availability of paid parental leave for each parent fosters an equal division of unpaid care and improves family work-life balance.

Implementing flexibility by design will empower individuals, improve productivity, reduce overheads and retain talent. Employers can make a start on this by:

  1. Updating policies to dismantle the perception that flexible work is just for women or mothers and removing primary and secondary carers references in policies for flexible work and parental leave;
  2. Encouraging male employees to access parental leave and flexible work and adopting targets that support this outcome;
  3. Accommodating requests from men and women equitably and without prejudice;
  4. Redesigning roles, especially in leadership, to measure performance based on overall products delivered rather than activity levels or time spent;
  5. Mainstreaming flexibility by design and alleviating common concerns that employees have with working flexibly, such as being asked to do full-time jobs in part-time hours; and
  6. Ensuring that when taken, parental leave and flexible work does not inhibit pay, opportunities or career progression, and tracking these outcomes over time.

For more information check out the following websites for the following recordings:

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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