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Women in the workplace: Flexibility more than gender equality

"The workplace is still a man’s world."

As we celebrated the International Women’s Week, I pledge less for gender parity and more for greater flexibility for women at work.

I am not a fan of gender equality statistics. I focus on the process more than the outcome in percentages. If more women than men are in graduate schools, the question I have in mind is how hard is it for women to get jobs after college for them to decide to stay on in school. If more women than men are in secondary and tertiary education, I doubt whether women should rejoice to find less educated husbands. If women outnumber the men in healthy life expectancy, I can imagine many women spending years as the family’s primary breadwinner and/or caregivers for their husbands before outliving them. These should explain my lack of keen interest for gender equality monitoring.

But my deepest concern, which explains my advocacy for work-family balance, is that the glowing statistics of women’s achievements do not capture the negative experiences of women as they establish their footing in the world of work. The workplace is still a man’s world. It often demands uncompromising focus and total dedication that women with caregiving roles cannot give. From IESE Family-Responsible Employer Index (IFREI) Philippine study I conducted with 411 respondents, only 31 percent of men and 39 percent of women do not believe that they must put in more hours than first established to advance in one’s career. This indicates that more than half of the population accepts that to excel in one’s career, one must work long hours.

Having a family and kids is a given constraint for a working mother which translates to greater expectation for the work supervisors to allocate the tasks equitably among their teams. A male manager I interviewed said about women going up the corporate ladder.

The only drawback that I see is that because they are homemakers, their first priority is their family. So the possibility of staying late for work or working on weekends is a bit slim. This is especially true if the children are still young and require a lot of attention. I kind of feel guilty asking them to stay late.

Our society expects the women to prioritize the family as much as it expects the men to bring home the bacon. As Betty (not her real name), a female HR executive at a bank, explained: 

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I see a lot of women managers who, while they’re young—in their late 20s or early 30s—or while they are single or married without kids, spend much time at the office. They get the same load as their male counterparts. But once the kids start coming in, somehow they have to be sensitive to the expectation of the husbands, of their own expectations. They have to balance career and family, unless the woman doesn’t care.

So what happens to women who combine work and family responsibilities is that they are bypassed for possibly challenging assignments, they are not promoted, and they are not even hired. Sometimes, though, the women themselves who take the initiative to quit their careers when faced with environments that are neither women-friendly nor family-friendly.

Thus, a lady entrepreneur who used to occupy a top position in a retail company told me that if women do not move up the corporate ladder, it is because they “simply choose not to.” She herself chose to quit working to see her kids grow up. A female company president in the finance sector recalled a point in her career when she went on a one-year leave to spend time with her family. A person below her in rank caught up with her but she wasn’t bothered because she “chose to make her family life more important.”

I sincerely believe that flexibility is key to getting more women in the workforce. Create an environment where both men and women can choose where to work and what time to work. This implies allowing employees to vary their start and finish times around predetermined core hours. Employees can also vary the length of each workday by squeezing their workweek in fewer than five days. Telecommuting or work-from-home programs allow employees to work from a location other than the office, reducing the time, costs, and stress of commuting while lowering the cost of fixed office space.

Beyond flexible work schedules, it is essential to have a flexible, less rigid mindset about the influence of family responsibilities at work. Having a family does not always have to conflict with job performance. In many ways, family enriches work. Having a family with whom to spend the weekend can make an employee more enthusiastic, alert, or energetic when she gets back to the office on a Monday. Emotional social support within the family can be much more effective than stress management seminars conducted in the workplace. Skills used at home in planning, organizing, and controlling resources are skills transferable to the workplace without additional training cost for the employer.

Changing mindsets is critical. There are corporate cultures that put work over all the other things, which foster an imbalance of work and family life. Having flexibility policies is a good beginning. But no matter how many relevant policies there are, the employees won’t have recourse to them if the prevailing culture sees non-work domains as separate private worlds, a deterrent to career advancement, or a constraint to efficient teamwork.

Flexibility may even provide a faster route towards gender equality. We could achieve gender parity in less than 117 years if we work for more flexible workplaces that provide varied opportunities for career progression to individuals who balance career and family responsibilities as much as to those who are fully dedicated to work.

 

Dr. Avic Caparas is an associate professor at the University of Asia and the Pacific. She is the principal investigator of the Corporate Family Responsibility project in the Philippines. For comments, questions, or feedback, you may email her at victoria.caparas@uap.asia.

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