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Organisations should challenge gendered attitudes to encourage family-friendly working policies and practices.

Organisations should challenge gendered attitudes and approaches towards flexible working to help encourage family-friendly working policies and practices, a new report led by researchers from the University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research (IER) and conducted for the Government Equalities Office has found.

The report, Family friendly working policies and practices: Motivations, influences and impacts for employers, by Professor Clare Lyonette and Beate Baldauf, both of the IER, also suggested that managers should be trained in managing flexibility and flexible workers.

The report’s findings, published today (22 October 2019), include a series of recommendations following an analysis of existing evidence and is one of a series of research projects aiming to support employers in closing the gender pay gap. Key recommendations for employers include:

· Introduce and promote a wide range of flexible working policies and practices

· Disseminate good practice

· Develop a positive workplace culture

· Encourage transparency among managers, flexible workers and other colleagues

· Trial and measure flexible working over a reasonable time period

· Think in the longer-term

· Challenge gendered attitudes and approaches towards flexible working

The researchers sought to better understand what leads employers to offer and promotes family-friendly workplace and which interventions are likely to be successful in encouraging them. By doing so they identified three distinct, but interconnected, factors that are the most important in an employer’s decision-making processes in regard to family-friendly policies and practices:

· Pressures from inside or outside their organisation

· Organisational-specific factors, including; job types and work culture

· To meet and improve organisational goals, including better financial performance and staff commitment.

The report also includes case study evidence from organisations which have successfully introduced family-friendly policies and practices.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Lyonette said:

“The link between family-friendly working policies and practices and the gender pay gap may not be immediately obvious. We highlight evidence which supports the argument that offering and promoting flexible working to both women and men can create a positive workplace culture, benefiting both employees and employers.

“Ultimately this can lead to greater gender equality both at work and in the home but only if flexible working is not seen as a women’s issue. We hope that the evidence and recommendations outlined in this report will support employers in trying to promote greater gender equality and ultimately to close the gender pay gap”.

Earlier this year the Government set out a comprehensive strategy to tackle gender inequality, as well as guidance for employers on women's progression and family friendly policies. The Government also published a toolkit for returners to help them return to work after taking time out for caring for others. The Government Equalities Office fund a variety of returner schemes aimed at tackling gendered barriers for women returning and progressing in the workplace."

In full, the report recommends:

Introducing and promoting a wide range of flexible working policies and practices (FFWPs): The overall evidence suggests that flexible working is good for both employers and employees. The implementation of a greater number of FFWPs can provide a signal to employees of a supportive work-life culture, which can also lead to greater gender equality and specifically reduced gender pay gaps over the longer-term. While some FFWPs may prove to have better organisational outcomes for different employers, the evidence presented in this review was based primarily on the introduction of ‘bundles’ of FFWPs and did not allow for the identification of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ individual policies and practices. Employers are encouraged to introduce trial periods of a broad range of FFWPs (see also below) in order to identify what works best for them and for their employees.

Disseminating good practice: Employers need to understand and accept the business case for flexible working and this can be achieved by the provision of good practice examples of employers and employees operating in a similar environment. Flexibility ‘champions’ (preferably senior managers) can serve to both promote the case for flexibility within their own organisation but also in others. Being seen as a pioneer in flexible working options, and also doing the right thing for employees, can convey a powerful message to potential employees, as well as to existing staff. This may have the knock-on effect of increasing morale and job satisfaction, as well as recruiting and retaining valued employees.

Developing a positive workplace culture: The availability of FFWPs within an organisation is not a guarantee that employees will feel able to make use of such policies. A positive workplace culture, one in which management is fully supportive of flexible working and which encourages take-up of flexible working, is required, especially at times when workers feel vulnerable to job losses. Senior management can play an important role in this respect, signalling to line managers and to other employees that flexible working is normalised within an organisation. Without a positive workplace culture where employees feel able to take up FFWPs, there is a chance that women will either leave for greater flexibility elsewhere or ‘stagnate’ within their current role, not applying for more challenging opportunities if that could also mean greater work-life conflict.

Encouraging transparency among managers, flexible workers and other colleagues: Senior management and line managers need to be trained in managing flexibility and flexible workers: this requires ongoing monitoring and updating as flexible working arrangements can affect other team members, as well as managers. Open dialogue is important in creating a trusting environment, one in which flexible workers and their colleagues can voice concerns and discuss positive ways forward. Again, this emphasises the need for a positive work culture, one that values and respects the opinions and needs of all its workers. Without this, those wishing to work flexibly are less likely to apply to do so, so increasing work-life conflict and decreasing job satisfaction and general wellbeing.

Trialling and measuring flexible working over a reasonable time period: Any widespread implementation of flexible working should be trialled and measured for both employee and employer outcomes over a reasonable period of time. It is unlikely that outcomes such as productivity and turnover can be properly assessed over a short period and other factors potentially affecting such outcomes should also be considered (e.g. the external labour market, new IT systems, etc.). Flexible working arrangements such as enforced teleworking can have an adverse effect: many employees are not set up to work permanently from home or in a remote location, even with advanced IT options, and employers should be aware of the potentially negative effects this may incur over the longer–term (e.g. reduced wellbeing and loyalty to the organisation may lead to reduced productivity, which will serve to deplete any savings made from reduced office space and resources).

Thinking in the longer-term: It is recognised that flexibility can be employer- or employee-led and, in difficult economic times, it is perhaps unsurprising that employer-led flexibility is prioritised over the needs and wellbeing of employees. However, the evidence has demonstrated that indirect outcomes (those outlined above) can affect the business case for flexible working, as well as direct outcomes, and employers need to remain focused upon the wellbeing of their employees. An upturn in the labour market may encourage valued employees to leave if unsatisfied, leading to high turnover costs and a loss of vital skills.

Challenging gendered attitudes and approaches towards flexible working: The link between FFWPs and the gender pay gap within an organisation is not immediately apparent. While FFWPs would appear on the surface to be beneficial to many women, especially those with caring responsibilities, they also have the potential to work against gender equality. Any perceptions of flexible working as a ‘woman’s issue’ need to be challenged and all employees need to be offered and encouraged to take up FFWPs. Male and female role models working flexibly can also act as flexibility champions and demonstrate to others that it can be done successfully. Any training and development opportunities need to be offered equally to men and women, working flexibly or not, in order to reduce any inequalities in promotion and progression, and so reducing the gender pay gap within organisations.

22 October 2019


Tom Frew, Senior Press and Media Relations Manager – University of Warwick:

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