Home News & eventsBlogsThe Workflex Blog Time to create a system fit for the future

Time to create a system fit for the future

Published: 10 Sep 2018

By Sir Brendan Barber, Acas Chair

Much of the debate around gender equality has focussed on the need to help women achieve parity with men, in terms of how they are treated and how much they are paid. But as Sarah Jackson said in a recent blog, there may be less difference between men and women than we like to think:

“fathers are making the same career compromises as mothers do, which we have been agonising over for decades. Men and women turn down promotions, say no to a new job – steer their career into the sidings and idle the engine for a few years.”

Sarah’s point is a good one. Instead of trying to fix women, we should also be trying to fix men and, more significantly, fix work itself.

What needs to change about work in the future? Most formulas for fairer and more productive workplaces seem to include an element of flexible working. This makes sense, as flexible working appears to answer some of the questions posed by longer working lives with more caring responsibilities, and make the most of opportunities offered by new technology.

The trouble is that flexible working has for too long been a one-sided narrative that often excludes men. The position many men find themselves in is one of passive collusion: colluding with a prevailing culture that says that flexible working is largely for women returning from maternity leave or for those winding down at the end of their careers. It is not seen as something that suits the ambitious or the career orientated.

This was emphasised in recent Acas research on ‘Flexible working for parents returning to work: maintaining career development’. It showed that flexible working was just not sold to men in the same way as to women – indeed, it was barely put on the table at all. The report recommends:

“Moving away from flexible working as a reactive response to maternity, paternity or parental leave – towards more agile working for all.”

The Women and Equalities Commission Report on fathers in work addressed this issue in many of the recommendations it made – for example, that paternity leave should be extended and flexible working arrangements offered from day one.

But let’s be clear, flexible working won’t resolve gender equality overnight. Deeply engrained institutional problems have been starkly illustrated by the size of the gender pay gap (and how long it may take to bridge). This leads us to examine the issue of female representation at senior level, or the lack of it, and the prevalence of gender stereotyping.

But workplaces of the future may offer some hope for greater agility and fairness. For example, there may be a greater management focus on the ‘task’ to be completed and less on the time and place. This is a clear message from the research carried out for us by Manchester University on the ‘hidden benefits and hidden penalties’ of flexible working. The report shows that there may be real value in allowing employees to ‘craft their own work environment’, and concludes that: “flexible working had the potential for improved organisational performance, due to employees working at their peak hours of productivity.”

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Sarah for her time as CE at Working Families. She has been championing the cause of better work-life balance for over twenty years and I know she will continue to do so. I look forward to hearing what she has to say about this issue at the Acas National Conference on 10th October.



Sir Brendan Barber became Chair of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) in January 2014.

He was the General Secretary of the TUC from 2003 to 2012, having first joined the organisation in 1975. He is Deputy Chairman of the Banking Standards Board, a member of the Council of City University London, and a member of the Board of the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.

He is a Visiting Fellow at the Said Business School, Oxford University, and a Visiting Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford.

In 2007 he received an Honorary Doctorate from City University. Sir Brendan was knighted in 2013 for services to employment relations.


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