Saturday, February 06, 2016

Gender equality, gender roles and flexible working arrangements for men

Interesting piece in the Australian Financial Review by Fiona Smith drawing from research by Bain and Company and Chief Executive Women. My thanks to Legal Eagle for the lead.

According to the research, "women who can set their own hours, work from home or are part-time are much more likely to recommend their employers to others, but those "freedoms" have the opposite effect on men."

Men in the same position take the opposite view. They feel unsupported and harshly judged. They take a career hit because they are often regarded as anomalies within current working cultures The differences in attitude are summarised in the chart. The report's core conclusion is that women's choices will be maximised if it is made easier for men who wish to opt for part time or flexible working arrangements.  

I wrote quite a lot in this space several years ago and for that reason was interested in the analysis. I also noted that some women's reaction could best be described as diddums. 

I will leave it to you to read Fiona's piece and the report. However, I thought that I should make some brief observations on the issues involved as a way of clarifying my own thinking, focusing especially on families and child rearing. 

We can think of the problem in terms of three overlapping circles: issues that are common regardless of gender; issues that are specific to women; issues that are specific to men. While the circles overlap, they are distinct.

Families take many different forms. There are single person households, the fastest growing household type and one that is changing the structures of our cities. Then there are share households especially but not exclusively among the young. There are single parent families where child rearing devolves upon that parent, sometimes with help from grandparents or other relatives. This is another category that grew rapidly and is now feeding into the growth of single person households as children leave home,.   Couples without children is another growth category, in part because women are choosing to have children later or (in some cases) choosing not to have children at all. The traditional two parent with children family structure may still dominate the debate, but is now a minority in terms of household types.

Note that I have put all this in gender neutral terms. A single parent, for example, may be male or female. In fact, the first case I came across as a manager which really sensitised me to the issues involved a man whose wife had left him some time before leaving him to bring up the five children on his own. This obviously affected his work and working patterns, leading to what was in effect discrimination. If we look at couples now, while the male/female combination dominates, we also have female/female and male/male combinations with and without children. Penny Wong and her partner Sophie Allouache is one prominent example of female/female with children.  

Flexibility in working arrangements is important across the spectrum regardless of gender, although its importance will vary depending on personal inclination and circumstances. For example, a working single parent who has to balance work and children needs a degree of work flexibility to accommodate the myriad things that come up in a child's life; sport, start of the school term, parent-teacher interviews, sudden illnesses that require the child to be collected from school. The list is almost endless.

Flexibility, however, is not the only need. While much of the discussion and indeed policy making in this area is driven by middle class people in relatively secure jobs in the professions or larger organisations, an increasing proportion of Australians live in a world of often insecure sometimes poorly paid part time, temporary or contract work. In these circumstances, it makes perfect sense, indeed it may be imperative, to trade of flexibility for an enhanced degree of security. Availability of other family members such as grandparents can also be important.

 Within two parent plus child or children families, arrangements again vary. At one end of the spectrum you have high powered couples pursuing careers with sufficient money to delegate a significant child care component to nannies. These couples are usually sufficiently senior for both to have a degree of flexibility in their working arrangements.

At the other end of the spectrum, one partner adopts a full time role. In the middle are a variety of sharing arrangements. However, a common feature is that one parent takes a larger role. Traditionally, this been a female role, although male participation has become more common. Roles may vary over time. Partly perhaps because male partners tend to be older, there seems to be an increasing trend for gender reversal in roles with the women playing the major role initially and then roles switching to allow the female partner to concentrate on her career.

However, it remains the case that women do more than men. The Bain and Company and Chief Executive Women report sits in this space. Increased flexibility in working arrangements for men may allow them to take on a greater childcare role, thus giving women more flexibility.

Whatever the gender of the primary child carer, the role comes with costs including reduced career opportunities, life time earnings and retirement savings that need to be considered. A significant proportion of marriages end in divorce. There are difficulties here with the statistics, but as a rough guide around 28% of marriages entered into between 1985 and 1987 can be expected to end in divorce.This proportion increases to 33% for all marriages entered into in 2000–2002.

In general, the lower earning partner (usually but not always the partner taking primary responsibility for child care) ends up worse off in terms of final retirement resources. I can't give a link here, I am quoting from memory, but this effect was clearly seen in the longer term position of women who divorced following the passage of the Family Law Act in 1975.

Turning to gender specific issues, women's issues are reasonably well covered, men's less well so.

The idea that child rearing is primarily a female responsibility remains deeply entrenched in Australia and among women as well as men. This is partly connected with the fact that women bear the child and are primarily responsible for its initial nurture, but also reflects deeply entrenched social attitudes.

From a women's perspective, this can be seen as both a curse and a blessing in career terms. It's a curse because it reinforces still extant if unsaid prejudices against female employment, thus reducing career opportunities. Regardless of the law, managers may be reluctant to appoint or promote women because they perceive pregnancy and child rearing as reducing flexibility and increasing costs. This can favour a male applicant compared to an equally competent woman. However, it's also a blessing at two levels.

At a societal level, considerable pressure has been placed on organisations to develop ways that will allow women to return to work and to work flexibly while pursuing career advancement. These may be imperfect, but they do exist and are continuing to evolve. At an individual level, women are more proactive than men in factoring pregnancy and child rearing into their career plans because they have to be.

The position facing men who might wish to adopt a larger if not primary child care role is more complicated.

The deeply entrenched societal view about the primacy of women in child care creates very real difficulties across a number of dimensions.

At a work level, there is no real expectation that men would wish to do so.A man who seeks reduced hours or greater work flexibility for child care reasons may experience considerable resistance. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that men can experience difficulty in accessing existing parental leave provisions even when legally entitled, while the decision to work flexibly is seen at best as opting out in career terms, leading to a career hit.

The figures in the above chart are quite telling. While women's willingness to recommend an organisation increase with work flexibility, men's collapses, from 26% for those who have not worked flexible hours to 11% for those who have worked flexible hours to just 4% for those currently working flexible hours. I don't think it any coincidence that nearly all of us who did play major child care roles when my daughters were at school were self-employed.

The societal view about the primacy of women in child care has other effects. The dominance of women in the daily routines of school and life, I think that this is true for boys as well although my experience is with the girls, creates difficulties for men in simply fitting in. This is compounded by suspicion, especially but not only with girls, about the presence of men, a suspicion that has got worse with the growing concerns about paedophilia. From experience, all this means that the primary child care role can be very isolating if you are a male.

Two further factors are worth mentioning.

The first is the timing effect I mentioned previously, the apparently increasing trend for gender reversal in roles with the women playing the major role initially and then roles switching to allow the female partner to concentrate on her career. Depending on the exact timing as well as the barriers I referred to earlier, a decision by a male to take a more active and especially the primary role can indeed be an effective decision to opt out of a career.

The second factor is the dependency factor. It can be extremely difficult for a man to opt for a bigger child rearing role where that makes him financially dependent on his partner.

Summarising, there is no doubt that the report has highlighted a genuine issue, that both men and women would benefit from the adoption of more flexible working arrangements for men. However, that conclusion has to be qualified in certain respects. To begin with, it is difficult to apply such arrangements to the growing proportion of the workforce in temporary, contract or part time arrangements. The proposal also has to recognise and accommodate the particular difficulties men face in opting for more flexible arrangements. Finally, it is actually hard to see significant change so long as the dominant societal attitude among women as well as men that women have the final primary responsibility for child rearing.

Note to regular readers

I'm sorry for the delay in posting. This post took me longer to complete than expected. 


Anonymous said...

From the Bain Company link: Based on respondents’ answers, we calculated a Net Promoter Score® (see the sidebar “Net Promoter Score explained” below for more detail)

Can't find the “Net Promoter Score explained”. Was just curious.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, Jim. My husband faced considerable resistance when he sought flexible arrangements. His request was eventually acceded to, but I certainly felt that his workplace saw him as less committed to the job. His boss's response when he first asked to come in slightly later so he could drop off the kids at school? "Isn't that your wife's job?" This guy has three kids, and a wife who's never worked - she makes cut lunches for him every day and he works until all hours. While that's fine for him - he should take into account that others have different choices. And yes, I agree - women have a blessing that we're expected to want to look after children.

Legal Eagle

Anonymous said...

Like your last sentence Legal Eagle. I used to work at a law firm and I remember a young solicitor who it appeared to me had been previously highly appreciated. When he and his partner had their first child, they agitated at their workplaces (more him than her probably) so that between them there was only one day per week where the child would have to be cared for by someone else. I personally thought that was pretty cool. I had the advantage of having a Mum who was willing and able to look after my kid(s) while I worked. Wasn't too keen on the day care scene though I did end up using it through necessity. I digress. The man in the situation outlined earlier ended up having some quite unkind things said about him, because he cared enough to help with the brass tacks child rearing. Professionalism and all brought in. No one should be penalised for having an agreement to limit work hours to take care of other responsibilities, but it happens. And, sad to say, far more often for men.

2 tanners said...

Even in places where the commitment (as opposed to a legal requirement) does appear to be there for "equal time" or for fathers to care for their children as a chosen option, it still raises eyebrows. There's a lot of cultural adaptation waiting to happen. Mind you, nothing for nothing - women who make the same choice are starting to be judged fr that choice too. Those who are back on deck after 6 weeks are seen as much more committed than those who take time off or ask for modified working hours.

As an aside, it's stupid. Many of the people being paid part time are doing unpaid company work in their time off. I've known several women to return to full time work in order to get paid for the same hours they were working anyway.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your last 2T. After having my first, I was advised by a female law firm partner that I might as well "bite it" and work fulltime as I would be doing the work anyway but just not be paid for it. And more than anything I agree that these strictures are stupid. Happy people produce a lot more work.

2 tanners said...

Slightly leaving the topic, because it's Monday in NSW, I once urged the APS union to accept the government's offer offer of a pay increase along with an hours increase (on their "productivity" basis) with a single caveat - no officer, regardless of level, could be required to work longer hours. Because if hours equalled productivity, then over those hours required more payment.

As I was being paid for a 75 hour fortnight, but working a 100 hour fortnight, I figured I was on a winner. But the CPSU did not accept my argument, and I'm still not sure why.

Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry for my slowness in responding to comments.

Hi kvd. The calculation of the net promoter score is explained in the report itself.

LE, GL and 2t, you provide anecdotal evidence to support the points. However, there is an interesting issue lurking there that can be summarized in this way: to what degree do the social changes that have taken place equally disadvantage men and women? To try to explain.

The first stage in the change was intended to assist women to keep working while also bearing and to a large degree rearing children. The next stage went further, flexible arrangements that would allow omen not just to keep working but also advance in their careers. Then came the push for changes that would give men flexibility to play a greater sole in child rearing while also continuing working. Now we are at the stage where further flexibility is required that will allow men to play a greater role in child rearing while also still advancing in their careers.

Turn from this to workplace dynamics, performance indicators and ambitious managers, female as well as male. This can be somewhat crudely summarized as the job has to be done and at least cost. Are we at the stage now where we are getting pushback against both women and men who seek flexible working? Extending, is there any difference in reaction between female and male managers?

There was once, I think, in that women managers tended to be more sensitive to the issues involved with kids etc. Now I wonder for, the performance requirements placed upon managers are independent of gender.

GL commented on the benefits of a happy workplace. We live in a time poor short term horizon world. Structuring a workplace to allow flexibility while maximizing returns takes time. The returns are sometimes not directly measurable at least so far as individual workers or work units are concerned, and in any case are longer term, well outside the time scale of current reporting and objective setting systems.

I have written a little on some of this before from a management perspective. I would argue that the key issue is not increased work flexibility for me, although that’s important, but increased work flexibility for all.

Jim Belshaw said...

me should have been men!

2 tanners said...


How do you pick from your typos which one to correct? Omen instead of women would have been my first. But that's just me.

You are very correct to accuse me of anecdotal evidence. I have a problem in that most of the statistical evidence I have seen is unquestionably biased by the presentation, depending on the viewpoint. Say what you will, much of the research in this area is itself anecdotal evidence for the "hard sciences" that the "soft sciences" do not know what they are doing. In my view, that is kind. They know exactly what they are doing.

I find it desperately hard to find researchers without skin in the game. As it were.

And I am left with my original opinions. Women are discriminated against, daily, except when they want time off to look after babies. That may impact their career, sure, but not as much as when men want time off for the same purpose. And i only have anecdotal evidence for this position, but none against.

Jim Belshaw said...

I was observing, not accusing 2t! I agree with the points you made in your last comment.