Men must prioritise flexibility as much as women for true workplace equality

Men must prioritise flexibility as highly as women if we’re to achieve true workplace equality

Organisations that offer flexible work practices may be one step closer to bridging the gender divide, but only if they ensure that such policies are taken up evenly by both men and women.

That’s according to new research from Bain & Company which shows consistent career motivations across women and men, but outcomes that vary significantly due to occupation choice, prioritisation of flexibility, and the perpetuation of biases.

Comparing workforce participation between men and women across twelve countries including Australia, the study found that while both men and women prioritise flexibility equally early in their careers, it declines as a priority for men as they age.

Research shows that men value flexibility as a means of attaining greater balance in their lives, while women prioritise flexibility for caregiving purposes says Lars Verheyen, Bain Partner and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion lead for Australia.

“This indicates that there is probably still a bias existing around the responsibility that females and males are taking and assuming around caregiving,” he adds. And it’s this social expectation which continues to hinder the career aspirations of women.

According to the Wages and Ages: Mapping the Gender Pay Gap by Age data series, issued by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency in June, most women are not in full-time work for the bulk of their working lives, which holds them back from management positions and widens the pay gap with men.

Between the ages of 35-44, 54 percent of women in Australia are in either casual or part time work compared to just 21 percent of men. And just 5 percent of men take up the primary caregiving role when they become parents.

An advocate for flexibility and dismantling harmful gender stereotypes, Rob Sturrock says that for decades men have felt trapped in a male breadwinner culture that tells them the best way to be a dad is to work long hours—but he now believes the tide is turning.

Noting that Bain’s research shows that Australian men have the highest preference for flexibility across all the various male international cohorts surveyed, he suggests that there has been a noticeable shift where men feel more comfortable challenging traditional gender norms and seeking flexibility to be present parents.

Sturrock, a public policy manager who took extended parental leave when his children were born and again in 2021 when he was made redundant at the height of the pandemic, says the critical question now is whether workplace systems evolve to better accommodate men seeking the time and space to care for children.

“For men, like any parent, there are so many benefits to having time to care for children,” he says.

“It gives you the time and space to focus on loving and caring for your baby, getting to know them, and beginning to understand what’s required in being a parent. My time at home was hard, exhausting, demanding and incredibly joyous”.

Sturrock notes also that his time at home gave him greater perspective on life and enabled him to hone a skillset that ultimately benefitted his career, including increased problem solving, time management, organisational skills, communication, and empathy.

“Caregiving makes you a better colleague and manager, without doubt,” he says.

Verheyen agrees, and says that successful companies of the future will embrace gender equality within policies along with a move to allow workers to take a “passport” approach to their careers— enabling individuals to explore different roles, flexible work, and on- and off-ramps as part of their career journey. 

He adds that flexible practices should be offered and practised at scale, encouraged by managers without judgement and adopted by men and women at all levels.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity to redesign where and redefine how Australians work. Organisations across the country now have a significant opportunity to harness the full potential and talent of their workforce in how they reimagine the workplace,” he says.

At the public policy level, Sturrock highlights paid parental leave as a reform which would likewise have a significant impact in levelling the playing field between genders. Currently the federal government offers 18 weeks leave pay at minimum wage for primary carers and just two weeks for “dads and partners”.

During the 2022 election campaign there was pressure on Labor to announce a more generous scheme as well as paid superannuation contributions on top of leave. However, such a commitment is yet to be made. 

“The scheme needs to offer more time to each parent, greater flexibility for when and how it can be accessed and be paid at a higher rate than the minimum award wage,” he says. “This would be an investment in our communities and workplaces.”

This piece was written with support from our partner Bain & Company.


Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women’s Agenda in your inbox