Is flexibility the key to bridging workplace gender gaps? Research would certainly suggest it helps. But is flexibility simply the means to an end? Should we actually be talking about the need for a revolution in what constitutes a ”working day”?
The issue at the core of this debate is the burden of unpaid work—such as cooking, childcare, and housework. These tasks typically fall on the shoulders of women. In the United Kingdom, the ONS estimates that women carry out an average of 26 hours of unpaid work—60 percent more than men. By the age of 46, half of women will be caring for an older, sick or disabled relative. Men get an extra 11 years on average before the same is true for them.
Even though more women are in paid employment, as women come into the workforce, the data tells us that they are not doing less unpaid work; they are simply increasing their total worktime.
Meanwhile the typical working day has not changed appreciably since men strolled to work in bowler hats. This is what Melinda Gates meant when she said, “we’re sending our daughters into a workplace designed for our dads.”.
At the Women in Business Summit in Leeds late November, I was struck by the tenacity of the women there. As leaders in major companies or running their own businesses, they are making the traditional working day work for them.
But it’s hard. One delegate told me how she had to leave an employer because of her daughter's burgeoning swimming career. Her training regime meant heading to early morning and late evening training sessions four times a week. This kind of commitment was incompatible with the hours her boss required her to work.
Legislation could help; for example, I spoke with several delegates about how helpful free childcare from age nine months would be. And all companies should be thinking about how to reward employees based on their outputs rather than their inputs.
But really, we need to expunge the apparent sanctity of the traditional, nine to five, workplace-based, five days-a-week, working day. As Caroline Criado-Perez notes in “Invisible Women”: “The culture of paid work needs a radical overhaul... women are not the unencumbered workers that the traditional workplace has been designed to suit.”
Now, this is clearly easier in some roles than in others. Doctors and teachers, for example, typically need to be present at specific times.
But flexibility wears many hats, from virtual working and part-time, to flexitime and job share. We should aim to offer a range of workday options as varied as the life situations of the people working them.
Technology has supercharged flexibility to the point where we have the power to revolutionize what constitutes a working day. Workplace culture needs to catch up and grasp the opportunity.
We need to expunge the apparent sanctity of the traditional, nine to five, workplace-based, five days-a-week, working day
Just as culture is not built in a day, so it cannot be transformed overnight. But here are a few pointers from our research for companies looking to make a start:
- Bold leadership: Employees need to see leaders setting the tone in terms of how they juggle their commitments. Seeing leaders openly prioritizing their personal lives makes it easier for employees to follow suit.
- Comprehensive action: Companies which encourage mothers—but not fathers—to take parental leave perpetuate stereotypes about who is responsible for childcare and dampen women’s chances of thriving in the workplace.
- An empowering environment: Women—and, indeed, all employees—are much more likely to thrive where they are given control over how, when and where they work. But a flexible working policy is worthless if managers demand—and reward—presenteeism.
 “Invisible Women”, Caroline Criado-Perez; Chapter 3: The Long Friday