Overcoming the flexibility stigma in the APS

By Meraiah Foley & Sue Williamson

Wednesday March 8, 2017

Mother and toddler son crossing the street on the crosswalk close up

As UNSW Canberra researchers examining gender equality strategies currently being implemented in the Australian Public Service, we were recently asked, “When will flexible work stop being seen as a ‘women’s issue’ and just as a good business practice?”

The answer to this question is that women and flexible work will stop being inextricably linked when all employees are able to use these working arrangements.

The theme of this International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change” and advances being made in some quarters of the APS — particularly the increasing adoption of ‘all roles flex’ or ‘flexible by default’ — represent this kind of boldness, reshaping jobs, workplaces, and cultural attitudes.

Flexible by default

Our research has uncovered a handful of government departments which have moved quickly to adopt the ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design, with promising results. Many other agencies, however, still reserve flexible or part-time work arrangements primarily for employee subgroups, such as mature-aged workers, people with disabilities, or employees with caregiving responsibilities. Women are overwhelmingly represented in these arrangements, accounting for 82% of part-time workers in the APS.

Policies that prioritise part-time or flexible work arrangements on the basis of caregiving responsibilities inadvertently reinforce the view that these are ‘non-standard’ arrangements, placing workers who use them outside the boundaries of ‘normal’ working patterns. We find that this can create resentment among employees who do not have access to these arrangements, and stigmatises those who do — especially when it comes to training and development opportunities, or being considered for a promotion.

Some policies also impose time limits on part-time and flexible work arrangements, which must be negotiated and renegotiated by employees. This process creates an environment in which women are potentially exposed to unconscious ‘motherhood’ biases, which can impede the retention and progression of women within organisations.

Sticky bias

Multiple studies from the United States and Australia, for example, have found that women with children are widely perceived to be less committed to their work than other employees, and frequently suffer wage penalties that cannot be explained by reduced hours or employment breaks; the effects of these biases are also observed in hiring and promotion decisions.

These biases remain remarkably sticky, in spite of multiple studies showing that part-time employed mothers are among society’s most productive workers. Indeed, many APS employees we have interviewed have expressed gratitude at being able to access part-time work to accommodate their families, but frustration at the perceived inability to progress their careers without converting to full-time status.

These impediments are not limited to women, however. Men who request flexibility around caregiving responsibilities have also been found to suffer ill effects. Studies demonstrate that men who seek to work flexibly are significantly more likely than women to have their requests refused, and to suffer greater career setbacks if they do access these arrangements.

All roles flex: a new standard

In its Balancing the Future: The Australian Public Service Gender Equality Strategy 2016-2019 released last April, the Australian Public Service Commission directed government agencies to review roles and adopt an ‘if not, why not’ or ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design. Such an approach marks a significant leap forward in removing the flexibility stigma from workplaces.

When anyone can request a flexible or part-time work arrangement, for any reason, these practices become more standardised. Private sector firms that have shifted to ‘all roles flex’ arrangements report improved retention, satisfaction, and pro-organisational advocacy among female employees, as well as increased requests for flexibility among male employees.

This approach is not without challenges, and long-term cultural interventions may be required to overcome ingrained attitudes regarding standard and non-standard patterns of work. However, our research suggests that policies that are designed to help employees with caregiving responsibilities, without extending those benefits to the rest of the workforce, may inadvertently stigmatise workers who use those benefits.

Being bold for change in regards to workplace flexibility also requires that managers and employees understand what ‘all roles flex’ means. It does not mean that women will work fewer hours; it does mean being creative in how jobs are designed. Different forms of flexibility are suited to different types of work, whether this be flexibility in terms of location, job tasks, level of control, technology or hours worked.

Staying bold

We are partnering with some innovative organisations which are meeting the challenge to be bold. And maybe by some International Women’s Day in the near future, this boldness will become the norm, and the APS will be leading in new and unexpected ways.

These findings are preliminary results from our ongoing study of gender equality in the Australian Public Sector. Additional participants in the research are welcome.

For information about the study, please contact: [email protected]

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