Is 'flexibility'​ the new glass ceiling?

'Flexibility', it’s a hot buzz word in business and you would be hard pressed to find an organisation that doesn’t publicly support flexible work conditions. So, what does ‘flexibility’ actually look like? 

 In Australia 71.7% of women and 82.3% of men aged 15-64 are engaged in paid work with nearly half of these women employed on a part-time basis, significantly more than the 17.4% of men. In many professional circles the lines have become blurred with flexibility and part-time work often seen as the same thing; this has perpetuated the stereotype of it being designed for women who need to juggle other responsibilities, usually the care of their families. 

And here in walks the 'flexibility penalty' - part-time roles pay less, can underutilize an individual’s competency and have limited career progression opportunities thus becoming a potential dead-end role. Hello glass ceiling; impossible in this day and age? Incorrect, only 6.4% of Managers work in a part-time arrangement yet the business world continue to scratch their heads wondering why there isn’t more women in senior leadership roles. 

Maybe instead of defining 'flexibility' in policy dense language we need to ask what the 'fly on the wall' would see in a truly flexible work environment. How about, customised job design rather than a one-size-fits all approach, ditching labels such as 'full-time' and 'part-time', making flexibility less about hours of work and more about setting priorities with clear timelines, give and take from both sides in times of urgency, creating inclusive environments where everyone feels valued and high performing teams who are aligned, have clear goals and know that strong performance is the result of a collective effort. 

We need to reframe flexibility to an ‘opportunity’ that will genuinely promote gender balance, optimise productivity and increase the talent pipeline. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by switching this lens and having bold ‘lead by example’ behaviours to make it possible.

Andrea Collins