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Developing Equality and Inclusion

By Mary Mercer, Associate, Working Families

The Right to Request flexible working for people with children under 6 (or children with a disability under 18) has been in place since 2003. This was extended to people with children under 16, or for those with caring responsibilities and finally to all staff with six months service.

Excellent as a the extension to all staff has been the tone had been set. The nature of the introduction of the Right to Request, based as it was around childcare and caring, has meant the majority of those who have taken up flexible working have been women. Even in organisations which had already extended their flexible working schemes to all staff, the pattern is usually the same. In Working and Fathers[1] the authors report that 82% of fathers say they would like to spend more time with their family and The Fatherhood Institute observes that a substantial number of fathers are now full- or part-time ‘home dads’: among fathers of under-fives, 21% are solely responsible for childcare at some point during the working week and 43% of fathers of school-aged children provide care before/after school.[2]

But are dads now as involved as they would like to be? Are employers who must offer the right to request to all their staff as encouraging to fathers as to mothers? The Top Employers for Working Families report[3] suggests that organisations are still more likely to remind new mothers than new fathers about their right to request flexible working and The 4th Work Life Balance Employee Report[4] confirms that mothers, who were part of a couple, were most likely to be aware of this general right to request (87 per cent), compared with couple fathers (73 per cent).


Take-up of flexible options reflects the same pattern. Part-time working is most common among mothers (59 per cent) compared with fathers (15 per cent). Women with dependent children are more likely to work school terms only (42 per cent), compared with men with dependent children (24 per cent) and take-up of job-share is more common among female employees with dependent children (14 per cent), compared with male employees with dependent children (four per cent).[5]

The 3rd Work Life Balance Survey[6], found a lot of frustrated men who wanted to work fewer hours and would have liked to request flexible working but who did not. ‘Would you prefer to work fewer hours, if it meant earning less money as a result?’ the survey asked – 21% of women, compared to 31% of men, said yes.

So why is formal flexible working still really the preserve of the working mother and how does this impact on our attitudes to work, equality and parenthood?

Is it to do with career aspirations? Is it still true that employers regard those who work flexibly as somehow less committed to the organisation and less worthy of promotion or bonuses for good performance? The authors of the 4th Work Life Balance Employee Survey reported that men still think this is the case. When asked if flexible workers are less likely to get promoted, men were more likely to agree than women were (37 per cent, compared with 28 per cent). Take up of all forms of flexibility was much lower for fathers who were part of a couple than for single parent fathers suggesting that in couple relationships childcare and its arrangements are still more likely to fall to the mother.

Employers do not help by asking for the reason for the request when people apply for flexible working. Working Families has long been encouraging employers to abandon this value judgement, especially now the Right to Request is open to all. The request cannot be turned down on the basis of the reason for the request so why ask your managers to decide if study, spending time with your family, or even golf lessons are more valid than childcare?

Employers would be better off supporting managers to make informed decisions based on a proper understanding of business need. In the most recent Top Employers for Working Families Benchmarking report[7] nearly half (48 per cent) of organisations identified lack of line manager skills and knowledge as a barrier to flexible and high performance working in 2014, and more than 20 per cent of organisations don’t train their managers in managing flexible and high performance teams, and where training is provided it is only compulsory in half of organisations.

Addressing the acknowledged barrier of lack of line manager skill through more and improved training is something that employers need to seriously consider.  Of the organisations who took part in the benchmark, 28 per cent reported a lack of support amongst line managers for flexible working. This is a significant issue. Without training and support line managers will remain uncertain of their skills to effectively manage flexible workers, and will struggle to build high performing flexible teams. They will also keep applying their value judgements and unconscious bias.

Studies, such as that produced by Working Families[8] have found that anecdotally, managers value their flexible workers and report a positive relationship between flexible working and performance. However, many organisations find that their flexible workers receive poorer outcomes in the performance management process and are less likely to receive the top performance awards. Managers still want to equate being seen in the office and long hours working as ‘good performance’. We urge organisations to examine their own outcomes from performance management to see if this is the case.

Contrary to what we all want therefore, flexible working could be contributing to the continuing divide between men and women in the workplace, where the flexible workers, the women, become less visible, less well paid and are less likely to be promoted. As a consequence, flexible working becomes more and more the preserve of women and is seen as unsuitable for men (who are also more likely to be turned down when they do make a request). The career of women goes backwards and there are major implications for equal pay.

Where can we make a change? Organisations must continue to see flexible working as a business tool facilitating employee and customer satisfaction and as such opportunities for flexible working must be more employer driven. Rather than waiting passively for employees to make a request, employers could look to see what kinds of flexible working might suit their businesses and encourage whole teams and new joiners from day one to adopt flexible patterns whether they are men or women, parents or not.

Employers will also ‘put their marker in the sand’ when they come to implement Shared Parental Leave (SPL) in 2015. How they approach SPL pay compared to maternity pay will show just how they feel about fathers and mothers and their positions at home and at work. As Jennifer Sabatini Fraone reports[9] “The idea of parental leave options for men and women allows both parents time to focus on their careers and bond with their children. It also encourages a more open-minded workplace where families are not defined in the heteronormative terms of mother and father. ”

Organisations will never fully address equality until they create a culture that allows all employees to focus on both having a career and having a family regardless of their role in that family and until they recognise that, in a workplace that leaves a lot of discretion and decision making to the line manager, that manager is key to the creation of that culture.












[1] Lancashire University and Working Families 2011

[2] EHRC (2009). Working Better: fathers, family and work contemporary perspectives. Research summary 41. London: Equality and Human Rights Commission.

[3] Top Employers for Working Families Report 2013

[4] The 4th Work Life Balance Employee Survey BIS 2012

[5] The 4th Work Life Balance Employee Survey BIS 2012

[6] The 3rd Work Life Balance Employee Survey DTI 2007

[7] Top Employers for Working Families Benchmarking Report 2014

[8] Flexible Working and Performance 2008

[9] From Here to Paternity: How Paid Leave for Dads Helps Women at Work. Work and Family 2014