Flexible work must be acceptable, not just available

Acceptable not just available: How flexible work and paid parental leave policies support gender equity at work 

Flexible work acceptable

Achieving a real impact and lasting change when it comes to gender equity at work continues to remain elusive and aspirational for many organisations. 

There is no doubt that many organisations are making inroads and striving to do their bit to tackle gender inequality in the workplace, but what really delivers results?

There are a number of key accelerants for driving gender equity at work, according to a new report by Chief Executive Women and Bain & Co

Analysing 22 companies that are outperforming the ASX 300 average on having gender-balanced leadership teams – including Telstra, ANZ, Deloitte and QBE – the researchers sought to identify five key accelerants to change that are aiding these employers in making it happen. 

What gets measured gets done

At the top of the list is “committed and accountable executives”. Reaching diversity, equity and inclusion targets won’t happen without genuine commitment to the goals. Such commitment also needs accountability: through scorecard reviews and linking bonuses, and other forms of compensation, directly to hitting targets. 

But accountable executives aren’t the only path to driving equity. Second among the top five accelerants to progress identified is “action-oriented commitments”.

This is where we see the link to workplaces that aim to be “family friendly” by addressing paid parental leave and flexibility options. Making a commitment to getting more Dads to take paid parental leave – and directly tracking and measuring that commitment according to the number of dads actually using leave policies – is one example of how this can be done. 

Acceptable not just available

Another example is in intentionally creating and demonstrating flexibility options. We know too often that flexible working can become an option used by working mothers alone, and research has highlighted some of the concerns fathers have about being committed to their careers, should they request flexible work. We need to change this. We need to actively, and intentionally, normalise flexible work for everyone: mothers, fathers, those without children, those needing to care for an older family member, those seeking to address their health or life outside of work. 

As the CEW and Bain researchers note, every one of the 22 employers they spoke to said flexibility is critical to employee retention. But just making flexibility available isn’t enough, flexible work must be practiced at all levels of the business.

COVID-19 has actually propelled the mainstreaming of flexibility forward, according to this report, and as many of us have directly seen in our own businesses. The pandemic has forced organsiations to embrace “flexibility as a normal, gender-neutral practice” while also learning that flexible arrangements can actually be successful for any team member, and in any business. 

By everyone, as CEW notes, that also includes senior executives and C-suite leaders. Senior leadership role modelling of flexibility is critical, just as it is to role model taking paid parental leave, demonstrating where you’re getting involved in family life, and intentionally showing that you have a life outside of work. Role modelling helps ensure that flexible work is not only just seen as possible – but also acceptable. 

It was great to see some excellent examples of policies, initiatives and changes that have occurred at the top employers, highlighted within the report. Such examples include BHP, which recently created a job-share position at the vice-president level – something that would have been unheard of in the past. Another is SEEK, which has initiatives to directly counter any bias in performance management reviews that may come up against those who’ve taken parental leave or other forms of extended leave.

Targeted action speaks louder than intentions

The report highlighted the “return to work” programs run by Deloitte and ANZ that aim to specifically recruit new team members from candidates who have taken a career break of two or more years. These programs provide wholistic support to those who’re hired, including flexible work from the outset.

Meanwhile at Mercer, the company’s “career journey maps” were shared as a key means to intentionally highlighting the positive stories that occur with help from workplace policies, and just how being an inclusive employer supports team members. Mercer spoke about one of the most powerful team member stories shared as being about a leader who had affirmed their gender while working with the business. This story gave the leader the opportunity to highlight what it’s like to be a transgender woman in busines. 

QBE also shared a number of their initiatives in the report, including the support it offers for those experiencing pregnancy loss, as well as those needing family domestic violence support. The insurer found that after launching initiatives like these, that there were run-on effects beyond those who directly benefited. They saw the positives in employees sharing how they saw their organisation as one that “authentically cared for its staff”

Being loud and proud inspires others to follow

It’s so encouraging to see these organisations being open about what is working for them. 

It’s information sharing that goes a long way in proving the point that policies enabling flexibility, paid parental leave, domestic violence leave and other mechanisms for supporting employees are only as good as how you committed you are to them, and how deliberate you are in ensuring they are seen as accessible and acceptable by all employees.

To learn more about how employers are implementing good policies to support employees, check out the Family Friendly Workplaces podcast.

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