We’ve all heard of sexism and racism but there’s one –ism that’s not talked about much, but oh so present, Flexism. The phrase Flexism was coined back in 2013 by Carol Evans, Working Mother Media President, and describes the discrimination against people either working or wanting to work flexibly. It's a term that is not widely used for something that is widely felt.
The rise of All Roles Flex
Working as a client engagement manager with WORK180, every day I get to speak to companies that are paying more than just lip service to flexible work policies, but I also get to hear the challenges companies are facing too.
It always makes me happy when I hear of companies opting to assume a role is flexible unless proven otherwise. But who is opting in, and at what cost? Word of warning, I’m going to throw a heap of stats around so pour yourself a drink.
What is Flexism?
Flexism is discrimination against people who work flexibly or want to work flexibly.
Parents know all too well the looks we get when leaving the office early to pick up a sick child or to do the school run. That’s Flexism.
Flexism is when people are told they can work flexibly, then given the job of Executive Director of counting how many pencils there are in the office supply cupboard. Important stuff!
But wait, there’s more. Flexism is also what people experience when they feel they can’t ask for flexible work, for fear of being sidelined or stigmatised. This version often impacts male carers and people without carer responsibilities.
We’ve cultivated great support for flexible work, with the caveat that you need to be a woman with carer responsibilities for it to be a legitimate request. Otherwise, why do you need to work flexibly? This, my friend, is Flexism!
The cost of Flexism
Let’s look at the impact of Flexism on both men and women.
- Flexible work boosts employee commitment and increases productivity. Where flexible arrangements are widely used, all employees (whether they work flexibly or not) are four times happier than in organisations with no flex options[i].
- But to access these benefits, policies alone are not enough; the right culture and support for flexible working are fundamental. A 2016 study by Bain & Company highlighted that even when companies have flexibility policies in place there are barriers to effective utilisation[i].
- In particular, there are significant barriers in the way of men accessing flexible work. Research by The 100% Project found that both men and women implicitly believe that work-life balance is for women[ii].
- Seventy-six percent of men surveyed had needed greater work-life balance at some stage in their career, but only 27% had asked for it[ii].
- When they do ask, men are twice as likely as women to have their request to work flexibly rejected[iii].
- As a result, the proportion of mothers using alternative work arrangements to care for their children far outstrips fathers. Seventy-one percent
- of women compared with 41 per cent of men use these arrangements[iv].
- Even where the Fair Work Act 2009 outlines six reasons an employee is eligible to make a request for flexible work, three of them are for caring purposes.
Now I’m no rocket scientist, but it is clear we hold deeply entrenched beliefs that flexible work is only for women with carer responsibilities. And this is causing barriers for anyone who doesn’t fit that description to request and embrace it.
Let’s now look at it from another point of view. According to the Centre for International Economics, presenteeism – workers dragging themselves into work while sick – costs the Australian economy a whopping $34billion a year through lost productivity and illness spreading[v]. When we work long inflexible hours, suffer burnout and still turn up because workplace culture demands it, that is Flexism encouraging presenteeism.
So Flexism is causing a gender imbalance when it comes to adopting flexible work, and it’s also a contributing factor to presenteeism. None of which is good for business in terms of employee morale or in terms of productivity.
How to stop Flexism
I recently took part in a client’s workshop where I heard someone sum up flexible work perfectly. They said it’s about creating a culture, not about having a great policy. Huzzahhh! That’s it! You can have a 24-carat gold policy (you can’t), but it will mean nothing if you haven’t created a culture that accepts and expects flexible work for everyone.
If a shiny new ‘all roles flex’ policy is announced, yet managers continue to spend crazy long hours at the office and send emails on weekends, people requesting flex will still be penalised because the culture at the top is long hours and bums in seats. They’re not showing that you can still get ahead by working flexibly.
Instead, let’s say a shiny new ‘all roles flex’ policy is announced, backed up with managers adopting some form of flex into their role in the months leading up to the announcement and visibly embracing flexible work thereafter. I’d put money on it that this flex option will work. People wouldn’t be scared to request flex, nor would they be punished either overtly or covertly for requesting it.
Flex is a right, not a reward
Many still hold the opinion that flexible work is something you have to earn. Prove your worth, and you get the bonus of flexible work. My opinion is the exact opposite.
The former approach shows a lack of trust. If you don’t trust your staff to deliver while working flexibly, they probably aren’t going to be the ones delivering A+ work in the first place.
There’s also a fear of opening the floodgates of flexibility. This has been shown time and time again to be unfounded. Firstly, flexible work is not a one size fits all approach. Just because one person transitions to a job share arrangement doesn’t mean everyone will because not everyone will want to. For some people working flexibly means starting work an hour late one morning each week, for some, it will be working from home once a fortnight, for others it might be a compressed work week. In all these scenarios, working flexibly requires flexibility from both employers and employees. If it’s done right, you will be rewarded with loyal and productive staff.
Allowing people time to have a life outside of work will improve not only their performance but their team’s performance too. Our degrees and qualifications help us understand our jobs, but our life lessons bring so much more to the table. We bring to the office what we learn outside of it, and if we’re not getting the chance to enjoy that, how can we be expected to create truly diverse, accepting and interesting workplaces?
[i] “Flexibility For All”, media release, 3 February, 2016, Bain & Company, Sydney
[ii] “Men at Work”, The 100% Project, 2013
[iii] “Creating More Gender Equal Workplaces”, Equilibrium Challenge, July 2015
[iv] “Grandparents are the main providers of informal care for children of working parents”, media release, 28 April, 2015, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra
[v] Carter, L., “Presenteeism costs economy $34 billion a year through lost productivity, report shows”, 12 April, 2016
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