Manning up: is it hard for men to work flexibly?

Recent research from the United States suggests men who work flexibly for family reasons are being stigmatized. Heather Greig-Smith examines UK attitudes to men and flexible working

6363818789_ea1ebf9fe9_oIf women are to achieve equality in the workplace and not shoulder the burden of childcare alone, then men also have to adopt flexible working practices in greater numbers. While one side of this coin is about enabling women to return to and remain in the workplace, the other somewhat tarnished side means enabling men to step out when needed and do their fair share in the home.

‘Stigma of flexibility’

A series of studies in the Journal of Social Issues, published last week, claims that men who make flexible arrangements to care for their children are seen as “poor organisational citizens and ineligible for rewards”. They suffer reduced career prospects and lower pay later in their careers. So-called care-giving fathers also experience more harassment and mistreatment than traditional fathers and men with no children. This, say the authors, discourages men from requesting flexible working arrangements.

But is this the case in the UK? The UK legislative situation is undoubtedly kinder to those looking for flexibility, with proposals to introduce the right to request flexible working unsuccessful so far at federal level in the United States. While it is left to individual jurisdictions such as Vermont and San Francisco to implement their own policies, in the UK the government mandates flexible working request rights for parents and caregivers and is planning to extend that to all employees in 2014.

So far so good. Some of the numbers also paint an optimistic picture. In its report Flexible Working: Goodbye 9 to 5, published in March, the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) surveyed 1,026 managers. It concluded that “men are just as likely as women to work flexibly” with 88% of male respondents doing so, compared with 90% of women.

Cause for optimism

David Pardey, ILM head of research and policy, said he is optimistic about rising levels of flexible working and the narrowing of the gender gap. He says managers are likely to adopt flexible working before other employees but the fact that they do so is positive for spreading flexible working through organisations.

The report says: “For the first time gender balance in flexible working is beginning to even out. As many men are working flexible hours (60%) and from home (56%) as women (61% and 56% respectively), showing a real and practical shift towards flexible working for all.”

The differences remain when it comes to working in job share or part-time roles. The ILM found that 38% of managers said male members of their team worked part-time and 13% had men working in job share roles (68% and 22% for women respectively). These are types of flexible working that are often associated with childcare and so it is unlikely that men are sharing those responsibilities equally with women.

Pardey agrees, but says the trend towards greater equality is clear. “For the last 20 years the proportion of men working part-time has been increasing. Admittedly that’s from a very low base, but it has been almost straight line growth.”

He adds: “We’re talking about a major cultural change and the time that takes should not be underestimated. Men and women share responsibility for childcare much more than they did 20 years ago. It’s happening but it is slow – we’re changing centuries of culture.”

When it comes to the US research, Pardey says the more formal and traditional work culture in the US makes the experience of stigmatization is not totally surprising. “People visiting the US are often surprised at how formal workplaces are compared to the UK.”

‘Double penalty’ for men

Emma Ritch is project manager for Scottish government-funded project Close the Gap, which works with employers and employees across Scotland to address the gender pay gap. When it comes to stigma, she said she can believe there is a double effect on men who work flexibly to look after children because as well as suffering the same issues as women asking for reduced hours, part-time work or job share, what they are requesting is seen as “slightly strange”.

She adds: “Women are often seeking to work flexibly because of caring responsibilities. Men who seek that flexibility are possibly facing double penalties because they are doing something outside the norm as well as seeking what is seen by most employers as an accommodation.”

Yet Ritch points out that the number of men seeking flexible working for childcare is small. “Most men reduce working hours to carry out education or training, which is seen [by employers and colleagues] as understandable,” she says. “Even after 15 years, one year of part-time working still shows up as a 10 per cent reduction in [a woman’s] wage compared with that of a man who has taken the same part-time working arrangement, which is usually to develop his human capital by undergoing education or training.”


More acceptable for women?

The government’s Family Friendly Working Hours Taskforce report published in 2010 admitted that flexible working is viewed as more acceptable for women. It says: “At present there is a greater acceptance of the needs of women to be able to work flexibly then of men.”

Things haven’t necessarily changed much since then. In evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee, published in June 2013, professional officer for the Royal College of Nursing Scotland Lynn McDowall said that she had represented men who had asked to work flexibly, predominantly because of childcare issues. “In one such situation, involving a couple who both worked in the NHS, with the woman in a more senior role, the man‘s manager had been incredulous at the flexible working request, believing that it should have fallen to the woman,” the committee reported.

The Institute of Welsh Affairs last year carried out research into the life-work balance of men in the country and concluded that there are real barriers to men seeking flexible working arrangements to look after their children or other family members. “Forty per cent of the men who responded to this study said they did not provide as much care as they would like to,” it said. “Their views chime with current evidence which suggests that men increasingly wish to be more involved in childcare but that there is a lag between their attitudes and practice in their caring contribution.”

Additional paternity leave – low take up

Meanwhile the Trades Union Congress says only 1 in 172 fathers are taking additional paternity leave. In 2011/12, 1,650 fathers out of the 285,000 eligible took APL – less than 1%. The TUC said it believes this is because the statutory rate for APL is £136 a week and that is rarely topped up by employers. By contrast the first two weeks of paternity leave are usually topped up by employers and most fathers are now taking time off after the birth of their child. The TUC is calling on government to increase this period from 2 to 6 weeks with 90% pay.

In 2009, Equality and Human Rights Commission research found that fathers who take parental leave are more involved in the care of their children and improved family life is the result.

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), says money is a significant issue when it comes to men considering flexible working. He says many men still regard themselves as the breadwinner and are not prepared to take a pay cut. “It isn’t about fear that employers will mark them down so much as fear they can’t afford it.”

Emmott adds that younger men are more likely to want to be involved in childcare, but says there are regional differences, with some parts of the country having more traditional values.

He adds: “This government and the last government are partly responsible for the belief that flexible working is a women’s issue. However, it isn’t a women’s issue and the fact that they have said they will introduce flexible working for all employees from next year demonstrates that.”

In the right direction

Encouraging men to work flexibly and share the childcare load with women is clearly important, despite the fact that inequality gaps are narrowing. As well as freeing more women to participate in the workplace, flexible working allows fathers to take part in child rearing in a way they have not in the past. Employers and employees alike need to leave preconceptions at the door and consider flexible working as a credible option for sexes, parents or not.

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Categories: Features

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