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Published 14 August 2012 15:19, Updated 15 August 2012 05:56
A speaker at a recent talent management conference struck a chord with many men in the room when she mentioned her husband’s reluctance to take time out from work to care for their children.
The conversation that ensued initially centred on companies making it too difficult for men to pursue flexible working arrangements but the tune quickly changed when one man stood up and said the problem lay with men themselves. “It’s up to us to step up and ask,” he said.
National figures on the percentage of males utilising flexible work arrangements are not readily available. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as at June this year, women comprised 70 per cent of all part-time workers. A recent study of 2100 working men by the Diversity Council of Australia showed 41 per cent of respondents had accessed formal flextime while 16 per cent worked part-time.
A smaller sample study from the ABS in June 2011 of employees with caring responsibilities showed 44 per cent of women use flexible work arrangements compared with 26 per cent of men.
Commercial law firm King & Wood Mallesons head of diversity Neil Cockcroft agrees that flexibility largely remains the domain of women. “We do have individual examples of males seeking out flexibility but certainly the ratio of males doing that compared to females is very low,” he says. “From my experience in the corporate sector and other professional service organisations I don’t think we’re any different in that regard.”
Social attitudes perpetuate this gap. “There are some underlying social norms about women being the default primary carers and men being the primary breadwinners that infiltrate the workplace,” Cockcroft says. “Those attitudes are one of the reasons that policies don’t always translate into practice.”
Those same attitudes contribute to the negative misconceptions that still dog flexibility. “Undoubtedly there is some stigma still attached to working flexibly,” Cockcroft says. “The notion that you’re not as committed to your job or career if you work flexibly is particularly prevalent for men who are expected to be full-time permanent breadwinners.” Ironically, Cockcroft says, workers who utilise flexible work practices – ranging from part-time, non-standard hours, working from home or a combination – tend to outperform their peers.
“The reality is flexible workers often perform at a higher level, or at least the same level as your top-performing full-timers, because of the additional discretionary effort they put in,” he says. “Once we stop measuring performance by visible input of time and instead measure the quality of the output we can move beyond the stigma.”
It’s a message Cockcroft is hoping to promote through a pilot program.
“There is nothing wrong with our policies but the key is to convert them into practice and overcome the attitudinal problems,” he says. By running small pilots for a few practice areas initially and effectively coaching partners and their staff through the process, Cockcroft says the chance for success is much higher.
“Piloting is effective because people can dip their toes in the water and try something they might not have otherwise done, but it’s low risk because if it doesn’t work, it’s easy to scale back,” he says. “Coaching and supporting people through maximises the chance of success and the lessons learned can then be applied broadly.”