Davos Agenda

The myth of flexibility for women in the workplace

Flexibility cannot, alone, tackle deep-rooted gender issues.

Flexibility involves more than just working part-time. Image: Bruce Mars on Unsplash

Valérie Beaulieu
Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, Adecco Group
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Only if we understand it more broadly can flexibility help tackle deep-rooted issues such as workplace discrimination and women’s lack of representation in top-level positions.
  • Flexibility involves a more fundamental rethinking of the meaning of work and the contract between employer and employee.
  • It starts with leaders aligning their teams and establishing boundaries from the top down.

Since the pandemic, many employers and employees have come to value greater flexibility in working arrangements. Flexibility is often framed as a women’s issue: when the insurance firm Zurich included the words “part-time”, “job-share” and “flexible working” in its job adverts, for example, the number of women applying for management roles increased by nearly 20%.

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I have even noticed people starting to talk about flexibility as if it could be a cure-all for the systemic issues that hold back women in the workplace. This is a myth. Flexibility cannot, alone, tackle deep-rooted issues such as the gender pay gap, workplace discrimination and women’s lack of representation in higher-level positions. It can help – but only if we understand it more broadly.

Work-life balance

I often hear “flexibility” used as a synonym for arrangements such as working a four-day week, or mornings only. But I see it as involving a more fundamental rethinking of the meaning of work and the contract between employer and employee – one that creates a genuine ability to control your schedule according to your personal priorities.

Perhaps this means you want to exclude meetings before 9:00 AM, or after 6:00 PM. Perhaps it means you want an hour off every day to walk the dog. Everyone is different, and it is not only working mothers who want time to themselves – we all have our own set of circumstances. If employees and employers have a trust relationship, work-life balance can be customized like never before.

At my previous company, for example, I worked with a husband and wife who happened to have similar qualifications and who successfully shared a job, working alternate six-month periods. Of course, that is unusual – but it illustrates how companies can benefit from showing creativity in response to unique situations.

Implicit bias

When discussing flexibility in relation to gender, we need to be careful to avoid implicit bias. It is a sad reality that the burden of care for children and elders falls disproportionately on women, but by framing flexibility specifically as a women’s issue we risk backhandedly reinforcing this norm.

Similarly, we should avoid equating flexible working with the kind of task-oriented, low-responsibility, low-pay jobs traditionally associated with part-time work. Across the EU, women workers are almost four times more likely than men to be part-time. Interpreting “flexibility” as creating more part-time roles for women could inadvertently strengthen the glass ceiling.

Image: The Adecco Group

To avoid this, we should work to make even the most senior roles more flexible. I happen to enjoy being full-time, but in principle there is no reason why my job couldn’t be shared. With platforms to collate emails, workflows and documents in the cloud, it is more feasible than ever before for one job-sharing colleague to get quickly up to speed on what another has been doing.

As more companies bring people back to the office, we need to ensure that new patterns of hybrid working do not disadvantage women’s career progression. Women are twice as likely as men to want to work remotely, and it is harder to manage interactions in an equitable way when some people are together physically and others are remote, than it is when everyone is remote.

We are currently seeing a growing need to coach managers in getting things done through hybrid work while ensuring that remote workers are not marginalised by their more flexible arrangements, given the historical trend for promotions to go to people who are more present and visible in the office.

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This longstanding workplace culture of presenteeism is part of a vicious circle: when men feel pressure to stay late in the office, they have less time to participate in the life of their household, adding to the domestic care burden on women. Changing workplace culture could break this cycle, and everyone has a role to play.

Clear objectives and individual boundaries

It starts with leaders aligning their teams and establishing boundaries from the top down. As suggested by the Zurich example, small differences in job ad wording can draw in a new kind of applicant. Recruiters can be more sympathetic towards candidates who have had career breaks. Leaders need to define clear objectives for employees, and ways of evaluating them on how well they meet their objectives – not on how many hours they spend at their desk.

Individual workers can play their part by speaking up. The idea of “leaning in” has fallen out of fashion for seeming to blame continued gender inequality on women themselves – but the core insight, of encouraging women to advocate for their interests at work, remains sound. That includes being firm about the boundaries you set for yourself.

But deep-rooted systemic issues of gender inequality in the workplace also need government action. Nordic countries, to take just one example, are leading the way in laws that enable parental leave to be equally shared, rather than maternity leave for mothers only.

Flexibility alone cannot close the gender gap – but it can help, if we recognise that it is not a gender-specific issue, and take more seriously its potential to radically reform how employers and employees interact and how work is done.

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Davos AgendaGender InequalityFuture of Work
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