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IWD Reflections: The Double-Edged Sword of Flexible Working for Gender Equality

Posted on 8th March 2023


In the lead up to International Women’s Day I have been reflecting on the progress we’ve made and the challenges that persist on the path to achieving gender equality. Although there are a multitude of barriers that remain, a key driver of many gender-based inequalities is the relationships between, and expectations around, paid and unpaid labour. I believe a radical reimagining of both our work and home lives, with flexibility at the core, can be an important catalyst for improving gender equality (as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion in general) within organisations and across society more broadly.

The COVID-19 pandemic-induced mass flexible working experiment has provided us with the evidence to demonstrate that large scale flexible working is indeed viable and desirable. When I talk about flexibility, I mean discretion in where, when, and how work is undertaken. For example, through varied starting and finishing times, reduced hours, changed patterns of work (such as job sharing), and changed working locations including working from home. Access to these forms of flexibility has been shown to improve labour force participation, mental and physical health, access to education, and unpaid contributions to society such as care giving and volunteering, as well as reducing carbon emissions¹.

My own experience mirrors this. I start early and finish early, and regularly work from home. This has allowed me to complete further education whilst still working full-time, increase the time I have available to volunteer for not-for-profits and community organisations, and more regularly exercise and participate in sport to improve my mental and physical health. Additionally, it simply improves my productivity as I concentrate better from home when I need to do focused work, and a happy, healthy employee just has more energy and drive in general.

Despite all these benefits, because there has historically been much higher uptake of flexible working amongst women (and other disadvantaged groups), there is a risk that flexible working can actually ingrain existing inequalities if it is not designed and applied with equity explicitly in mind. People who work flexibly may be subject to ‘flexibility bias’, in which they are penalised in their careers for not meeting the stereotype of the ‘ideal worker’². They may be considered less competent, less committed, and less deserving of work rewards. Similarly, due to ‘proximity bias’, in which managers show preference to those employees with whom they are physically co-located, flexible workers may be denied or overlooked for networking opportunities, desirable work projects, promotions, and career advancement³ . If uptake of flexible working is higher amongst those who have been historically disadvantaged at work, and policies, procedures, and most importantly – cultures, aren’t explicitly designed to reduce the risk of flexibility biases, existing inequalities will be exacerbated.

One simple way to reduce flexibility biases is to increase the uptake of flexible arrangements across all workers, therefore altering the social norm of the ‘ideal worker’ so that employees who work flexibly are less likely to be treated differently. From a gender equality perspective, encouraging more men to utilise flexible arrangements is also crucial to improving equality outside of work as it can act as a catalyst to support more equal sharing of domestic labour and care tasks.

Given the proven benefits of flexible working, we need to treat it as an investment in a happier, healthier, and more equitable society, and we should be finding ways to proactively encourage flexibility and maximise its benefits. Roles need to be designed with a level of flexibility built in and to allow work to progress effectively when teams are working asynchronously. This will require more effective communication and reconsideration of ‘traditional’ ways of doing things from meetings through to work allocation and performance management. Conveniently, many of these changes also support greater productivity and work satisfaction regardless of whether staff are working flexibly or not.

The status quo has been well and truly challenged, and we are now in a position to decide how we take these lessons forward to engrain greater equality into the future. Encouraging greater uptake and support for flexible working across the entire workforce is one way to support the continued fight for gender equality both at work and at home.


¹ Kossek, E. E. & Kelliher, C. (2022). Making Flexibility More I-Deal: Advancing Work-Life Equality Collectively. Group & Organization Management. DOI: 10.1177/10596011221098823

² O’Connor, L. T. & Cech, E. A. (2018). Not Just a Mothers’ Problem: The Consequences of Perceived Workplace Flexibility Bias for All Workers. Sociological Perspectives, 61(5), 808-829. doi:10.1177/0731121418768235

³ Subramanian, S. & Washington, E. F. (2022, February 25).  Why Flexible Work Is Essential to Your DEI Strategy. Harvard Business Review.

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