International Women’s Day: how to make a difference with flexible working

Agency leaders on International Women’s day and flexible working / Ave Calvar via Unsplash

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day – a day intended as a celebration, but increasingly mired in arguments about tokenism, co-option, corporatism and ‘pinkwashing.’ What’s clear in those criticisms is the continuing need for genuine initiatives toward gender equality. We asked experts from The Drum Network what initiatives truly make a difference, pushing past tokenism toward meaningful year-round change. In this second piece of two, they look at flexible working.

Cassy Waugh, client services director, Nucco

In agencyworld, working out of hours has mostly been the norm. Bonding with leadership at the pub was a way to get noticed. When I became a mother, 16 years ago to the day as I write this, this became much harder because I couldn’t – and I didn’t want to.

I availed myself of flexible working options mostly but not exclusively used by working mothers, which meant working four days a week and leaving at 5pm (early!) or working from home one day (a doss day!)

“You’re being judged on your output, not your input” was a phrase I heard repeatedly. Although well-meaning, in reality it meant 80% pay but expectations of the same workload and impact on the business.

This culture puts parents – in my experience mostly mothers – at a disadvantage, slows career progression and has led to many leaving our industry in search of a more family-friendly environment.

For me the biggest difference has been working at a company where the cultural norm (for everyone) is reasonable working hours, weekend and evening working the exception not the norm, holidays and part-time working being respected and a managing director who leads by example.

Gemma Flinders, senior digital PR specialist, Impression

Gimmicky perks may look good on a job advert, but having a company that understands their employees are humans with full lives away from their desks is what makes the difference.

A tangible change that we’ve implemented is ‘life leave’: discretionary paid leave for when unexpected events happen.

For too long, individuals have had no choice but to use unpaid leave, sick days or annual leave to deal with everyday challenges such as unwell children, poor mental health and medical appointments.

Getting a doctor’s appointment out of office hours can be impossible, although routine appointments are necessary (and we may face issues that need ongoing attention). Examples include a change in contraception or having to undergo a smear test. Some put off the latter due to not being able to get out of work, putting their health at risk.

By having life leave, we can deal with the things that come up in life. That differentiation between treating your employees as people and not just as workers is the most meaningful difference companies can make.

Gail Norman, head of HR, Accord Marketing

The biggest change that employers can make to increase gender equality in the workplace is to develop flexible working that truly works for both the business and the employee, and to offer this to everyone.

The pandemic has shown how flexible working benefits the lives of many employees, and that expanding flexible working beyond the traditional uptake of mothers with young children has a positive effect on gender equality by allowing the burden of home responsibilities to be shared – whether this is taking a child to the dentist, an elderly parent to hospital or a dog to the vet.

However, the last two years have also shown us the importance of a clear divide between home life and work. During lockdown many spoke of feeling they were living at work, rather than working at home.

To make flexible working a success, it’s vital that employees and employers work together to design jobs that work for the business in practice as well as theory, and are willing to have grown-up conversations about expectations on both sides.

Harriet Jones, account director, Raptor

When asking friends and peers what initiatives they’ve seen in the workplace that genuinely work to break gender biases, I was met with a collective ‘hmm.’ Many reported tangible corporate initiatives including maternity policies and flexitime. While there was broad agreement that these policies do help navigate the day-to-day, there was a greater feeling that gender bias is something that runs deeper than working hours.

Bias presents differently to different people. Not every woman is a mother; equality isn’t maternity policies. We need to look beyond the baby bias. It could be the confidence to apply for a new role, a creeping sense of imposter syndrome or the perception that women need to adapt their working style to fit a certain mold.

Many of the perceived barriers are personal: internal blocks to confidence learned across a career. There is no one solution to ‘fix’ gender bias, but those who feel equally valued mark it down to company culture. Gender equality in the workplace doesn’t stop at maternity policies, it’s creating a workplace culture that embraces and encourages different voices and styles – of any gender.