Workplace Flexibility And Gender : Can Workplace Flexibility Promote Better Gender Equality?


On this crazy journey called life, we almost all will go through something at one point or another that can impact how well we do our jobs. Perhaps we start a family and now have a new baby to take care of. Maybe it’s looking after an elderly parent. Either way, it’s the offices that implement workplace flexibility that are best suited to handle an employee’s changing needs. What exactly is workplace flexibility and what role, if any, does gender have in it?

Workplace flexibility is a company’s adaptability towards its employees when their needs shift. They may be more accommodative to an employee’s place of work, working hours, and duties and responsibilities. Through offering this workplace flexibility to both men and women—especially new mothers—it’s possible to begin closing the equality gap.

In this article, we’ll talk a lot more about workplace flexibility, including what it is and how it works. We’ll also discuss what this flexibility looks like for men and women at present and what it can continue to morph into to promote equality for both genders.  

What Is Workplace Flexibility?

The work/life balance may have once seemed like just a myth, but today, more and more companies take it seriously. From Google with its myriad of workplace slides that encourage play to other offices with nap rooms, indoor playgrounds for children, and even gyms, at least if you have to stay in the office, you can take care of some personal needs as well.

Workplace flexibility takes the work/life balance one step forward. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)Opens in a new tab. defines the concept of workplace flexibility as follows: “a Universal Strategy that can meet the needs of employers and their employees, which includes when, where and how work is done.”

While the DOL says work/life balance is an interchangeable term for workplace flexibility, we’d disagree. Having a work/life balance means you strive to devote roughly the same amount of time to your personal life as you do to your work life, or at least about the same energy. Workplace flexibility is about understanding that life events happen and the employer accommodating the employee when they do.

Here’s what can change when entering a workplace flexibility arrangement with your boss or manager.

How You Work

The nature of your assignments can shift if you need a more flexible schedule. Whether you get less work to avoid stressing you out or you get shifted to a project you can do with fewer deadlines or from the comfort of your home, the scope of these projects will be different.

Where You Work

You may now have the freedom to work elsewhere besides the office, such as at home. You could come into the office once a week, once a month, or more seldom depending on what took you away from your standard schedule in the first place.

When You Work

Another alteration to your schedule that can occur in flexible workplaces is when you work. You could go from a full-time to a part-time employee, the most obvious schedule shift. Depending on what your office’s hours are, you might switch from working nights to covering mornings. Other schedule changes could include working three or four days a week instead of five.

The DOL does mention that, no matter which changes occur, a flexible workplace agreement “should be mutually beneficial to both the employer and employee and result in superior outcomes.”

That makes sense. Your company is giving you a hand here, after all. While you have something major going on in your life, it’s important to still commit to doing well as possible with your job, even if you do work in a reduced capacity.

How Does Gender Play a Role in Workplace Flexibility?

Now that you understand more about workplace flexibility and what it is, it’s time to bring gender into the equation. Here’s how this flexibility can or does affect women and men in today’s workplace.

Women

According to a 2017 article in the Institute for Family Studies (IFS)Opens in a new tab., data through the Pew Research Center compiled over several decades noted that most women who have a young child (younger than 18) at home have since shifted from full-time to part-time work. Very few of them (under one-third) said they wanted to work full time in the future.

These women, like many others, find that their careers don’t quite bounce back after having children like they may have expected. This can start in pregnancy, as a woman will have to take a maternity leave through her workplace to give birth. Some women decide not to come back to their jobs after that. Others will ride out their maternity leave and from there, they may cut back their schedule to a part-time capacity. This way, they have the time to drop off and pick up their children from daycare and be there to raise and take care of them. 

You can already see where workplace flexibility could help these women. They might work from home somedays, especially as they get closer to giving birth. Then, after the baby is born, a woman could reclaim her job with more agreeable hours and terms.

The IFS article mentions that this arrangement could incentivize a woman to stay within the workforce, something that doesn’t often happen after pregnancy. That’s not always through a woman’s fault, but rather, it’s circumstantial. When these same women decide after four or five years that they want to work now that their kids are older, they often find they can’t land a job.

This piece from CNNOpens in a new tab., published in 2013, talks about opt-out moms. These are women who can’t return to their careers in the same capacity (or any capacity) because they’ve had a baby. The experiences of the women interviewed for the article were mixed. Some did nonprofit volunteer work around town, often unpaid. Others said it’s easier to get back into the workforce now (or back in 2013 when the article was published) than it was years ago.

What does seem to matter is not taking too long away from work and then trying to land a full-time job. Then again, that’s true of any jobseeker, man or woman. Everyone knows that the longer you go without a job, the bigger the gap you have on your resume. That can be hard to overcome when looking for a new job.

Other women in the CNN article did talk about a stigma for returning mothers. They mentioned that employers might not think these women can do the job because they’ve been out of the workforce for years. While that’s not always true, it’s just another obstacle these women have to overcome to get work again.

Men

Obviously, when talking about workplace flexibility, the gender most affected is women. They’re the ones carrying, having, and nursing the baby, after all. Still, this Business CollectiveOpens in a new tab. article brings up a great point, that men need the option for a more flexible work schedule as well, especially if they’re new dads.

The article cites 2013 data from Pew Research Center where a whopping half of working dads mentioned how they found it hard to juggle both family life and their job duties. However, because they didn’t give birth themselves, it can feel strange for these men to ask for a more flexible arrangement to be there with their newborn and their wife or partner.

Like there’s a stigma that some mothers perceive when trying to get back into the workforce, these men experience a different type of stigma. They may be managers, CEOs, or in other positions of power. Taking a step back from such a major role to attend to family can feel like abandoning the post.

The article has a stellar quote from Mark Weinberger, the CEO and global chairman of Ernst & Young. While attending the White House Summit on Working Families years back, Weinberger said: “Women don’t want to be singled out and men don’t want to be left out.”

That’s a pretty succinct way of putting it, we’d say.

Can Workplace Flexibility Promote Better Gender Equality?

Gender equality, although becoming a reality in more ways every day, is not yet something we live with. Men tend to make more money than women. Earlier this year, Business InsiderOpens in a new tab. published an interesting article with data from 2017 that delved deep into the pay gap. Improvements have occurred, with some states like California, New York, Vermont, Delaware, Maryland, and Florida in the “90 percent better” territory.

Other states, among them Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Hawaii are making good strides, too.

However, a lot of states are still contributing to the pay gap. The worst offenders per the Business Insider article are Idaho, Utah, Louisiana, Alabama, Indiana, and Wyoming, which are in the “68 percent worse” zone.

While pay equality is something to still fight for, it likely won’t happen until men and women are treated the same in other ways. One of those ways could be with workplace flexibility. Yes, obviously, men and women have different anatomies and men will never give birth. Still, they should be entitled to time off after their wives or partners have a baby. When this paid time runs out, they too should be able to discuss a flexible work schedule with their boss or manager stigma-free.

For instance, perhaps they work from home instead of at the office for the first few months after the baby is born. This way, they can be with the new baby. These men could even stay at the office but work fewer hours or on less strenuous projects.

FlexJobsOpens in a new tab. bring up an interesting point in an article on gender equality and workplace flexibility. They mention a quote from Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University. For years, Goldin has said that the best way to close the pay gap between genders would be to stop giving men more pay for the hours they spend at the office when women necessarily cannot.

As you remember from the last section, lots of women take time off after giving birth. Sometimes this is only a few months and other times that break extends for years. When they decide they want to get back into the workforce, they tend to experience difficulties.  

With workplace flexibility, like we said before, women wouldn’t have to abandon their roles. They could minimize their responsibilities and work from home or part-time, but they’d still be a part of a company. This erases the idea of mothers in the workforce being opt-out employees. That might make some companies less reluctant to hire these women. It can also ease the persistent stigma working mothers face.

Should Your Company Incorporate Workplace Flexibility?

You want to treat both your male and female employees well, even equal. To that end, you’ve decided you’d like to implement workplace flexibility in your office. How do you begin going about this?

In the DOL link we shared at the very beginning of this article, you’ll find a workplace flexibility toolkit. This is based on data and information gathered by the Women’s Bureau and the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). There, you can read research and case studies about how to make flexible schedules and tasks at your workplace.

You can also follow these tips:

Decide what kind of arrangement works best: This is often done on an employee-by-employee basis, as everyone will have different needs. For example, some employees may go from full-time work to part-time. Others may work from home all the time or come into the office sometimes. More still may need a reduced workload, either for a limited period or a longer duration.

Put it in writing: Once you begin shaping your workplace flexibility plan, you need to make sure it’s written down and officially added to your company policy.

Implement training if necessary: Sometimes, depending on the breadth of changes that occur, you may have to do some extra training. For instance, you might have to show your team leaders and managers how to train and oversee the work of employees who are now working at home.

Keep the lines of communication open: A flexible workplace plan will not succeed without open communication between both the employer and the employee. If you need to reach out to the flexible employee, while maybe not instantaneous, they should get back to you in a reasonable amount of time. If the employee becomes unresponsive, this can erode the trust you have in them. In turn, this makes maintaining a flexible arrangement going forward quite difficult.

Assess success: After several months of the ongoing flexible workplace arrangement, take an objective step back to see how the employee has fared. Are they turning in work on time? Are they still contributing when necessary? If so, then you may continue with the arrangement. If the employee’s performance leaves something to be desired, you might bring them in for a meeting to discuss why. You could make changes to the arrangement from there.

Related Questions

What are the benefits of a flexible workplace? Besides the benefits discussed in this article, there are yet more perks to a flexible workplace. These include:

– Developing a strong bond and trust between the employer and employee.

– Reducing telecommuting costs; employers might cut back on $11,000 of commuting expenses annually, says FlexJobs.

– Employees maintain more energy and sleep better when on a flexible schedule according to a report from the University of MinnesotaOpens in a new tab..

– Since they have the option of working from home or cutting down on their hours when ill rather than dragging themselves to the office, employees will report for work more than call out sick.

– Less stress among employees and more productivity due to a less confined schedule.

Read our related article 25 Workplace Flexibility BenefitsOpens in a new tab. 

What are the disadvantages of a flexible workforce? Workplace flexibility can have its downsides, too. For instance, here are a few examples:

– It’s hard to track who’s covering what in a customer service setting, which can lead to customers getting lost through the cracks.

– Employees spend less face-to-face time with one another, potentially lessening opportunities to brainstorm and come up with creative ideas for the good of the company. 

– Training can prove tough depending on an employee’s schedule and how often they’re in the office.

– Gathering everyone to attend a conference or an impromptu office meeting can also be hard to do when some employees work from home or on a part-time schedule.

​Read our related article What are the Disadvantages of Workplace FlexibilityOpens in a new tab.

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