Breaking the ‘flexibility penalty’ cycle 

Article by Sharon Bonfield, ‘Advice for Women Marketing Proposition Manager’, St James’s Place

woman working from home, flexible workingFlexible or part-time working can help us women juggle childcare and other caring commitments by it providing that bit of extra ‘give’ in our schedules.

But while working reduced hours might make your life easier, it probably hasn’t done your career – or your finances – any favours. Educational charity The Female Lead talks about the ‘flexibility penalty’ – the price both full- and part-time working women pay for having a degree of freedom in their work schedule.

Finances take a hit in more ways than one 

Any reduction in the hours you have worked will likely have had a significant impact on your earnings, but it can also impact on your longer-term wealth too when you consider the hit to your pension. To put it into perspective, two years of maternity leave will reduce the average woman’s pension by £25,500, according to AJ Bell.

Yet career breaks or reduced hours aren’t the only problem. Most career advancement comes as a result of changing to new, better-paid jobs. But unfortunately, once you’ve started down the flexible route, career progression can get harder. Some women, for example, worry that they’ll lose the flexibility they’ve earned if they switch to a new employer. Others feel so grateful for it that they resist pushing for pay rises, almost like they’re taking flexibility in lieu of cash.

The most obvious reason women need flexibility at work is so they can look after children, but there are plenty of other reasons too. Many need to take time out to care for elderly relatives, for example. Then there are those taboos we don’t really like to talk about.

Lots of women suffer debilitating periods, with approximately 14% needing to take time off work as a result, according to a study in the BMJ. And it gets worse as we get older: 94% of menopausal women say their symptoms have had a negative impact on their work and 51% have said they have had to reduce their hours as a result.

The impact of COVID-19 on perceptions 

Whatever reasons we might have for working flexibly, it has long carried a stigma, which goes some way towards explaining why men have traditionally been so much less likely to work in this way.

Take the shared parental leave scheme as an example. It enables fathers to take time out of work in their baby’s first year, but according to HMRC figures, only 2% of eligible couples are taking advantage of it.

In some work circles, arriving late after a child’s school assembly can imply a lack of commitment, while working from home has long been seen as a euphemism for not getting dressed and monitoring emails from the sofa.

-Fortunately, after the events of the past 15 months, that stigma is starting to shift. COVID-19 has forced the majority of office workers to relocate to their home offices, studies, kitchen tables, sofas, even their beds. And collectively, we’ve proved it can be done. Businesses have not ground to a halt.

The new normal 

Families up and down the country are reaping the benefits of this new way of working. There are more fathers on the school run, and the nation’s dogs are enjoying long strolls rather than rushed walks around the block. It has been liberating for women too, who no longer need to sheepishly phone their boss and ask to work from home because they’ve got menstrual cramps or because their night sweats kept them up.

As well as bringing lifestyle benefits, remote working has increased our career opportunities – when you don’t need to commute, you can arguably apply for jobs in any part of the UK.

But for all these benefits, there’s still a risk that more flexible working could go against us and increase the demands on women. Now that we are all set up to work from home, it’s harder to demarcate the start and the end of the working day.

For every long dog walk or lunchtime yoga class that gets squeezed into our schedule, there’s often an evening or a Sunday afternoon spent catching up on emails. And what about all that time you’re saving on the commute – is it being spent on your wellbeing or does it just mean a longer working day?

Flexibility can certainly help women, and the new normal means that it is less likely to be to the detriment of their career progression or earnings. But it will take good employers to respect the needs and wellbeing of their staff and for women to understand the value they bring to the business to make it really work.

Read this next…

Why breaking barriers with flexible working is good for business

Working from home has become the new norm for many and with it, the option to work more flexibly. Pre-pandemic, flexible working was often seen as an inconvenience granted only to those who really needed it. But the events of this year have prompted many companies to realise there are long-term and significant benefits to more flexible working environments.

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