Challenging traditional gender views

The recent tribunal case against PwC by a male employee denied flexible working demonstrates how traditional line manager views can land employers in hot water, says Wragge Lawrence Graham director Anna Fletcher.

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Flexible working is not a new concept. In fact it has been around for more than a decade and yet it continues to cause difficulties in the workplace when not managed effectively by employers and employees alike. Flexible working requests often involve changes in hours or patterns of work to fit around childcare arrangements and have often been made by women for those reasons. This in itself may have created certain expectations in the minds of managers dealing with requests. A traditionally-held view on where childcare responsibilities lie may remain entrenched for some time to come despite changes to the flexible working regime introduced this year.

With that in mind we are likely to see ongoing challenges from disappointed employees with the potential risk of litigation from the most disgruntled. There is also the potential for challenge from male employees embracing the opportunity to at least ask to work flexibly for childcare reasons but faced with opposition on the basis that that’s not what men ‘do’.

This is a real concern. In the case of Pietzka -v- Price Waterhouse Coopers this was the precise issue that came before the tribunal. The case identified some important learning points on the dangers of stereotypical assumptions being drawn by managers when dealing with flexible working requests.

The case involved a male employee who made a request for flexible working because he wanted to spend more time with his daughter. His request was refused and he was told by his manager that his request would be harmful to his career. Central to the refusal was the manager’s inability to understand why Mr Pietzka would want to put his family life ahead of his career.

PwC has a well-recognised diversity and gender equality track record. However, despite that this manager had pre-conceived ideas regarding the validity of the flexible working request being dealt with, the merits of the request and the impact on career progression. This was clearly reflected in the fact that it became clear at the hearing that the manager had been supportive of female members making flexible working requests. The tribunal found that the engrained, old fashioned attitudes shown towards Mr Pietzka amounted to sex discrimination.

While Mr Pietzka’s experience may well have been an isolated one within PwC, given their track record on diversity, others will have had similar experiences with their employers. Until society’s attitudes are changed flexible working requests for men where childcare arrangements lie at the heart of those requests may continue to be difficult. There still remains an expectation amongst some that it is women who will take care of childcare responsibility.

Will this change?

The recent changes introduced in June 2014 which permit flexible working requests to be made by all employees rather than just those with children under the age of 17 (or 18 where disabled) and those who have responsibilities as carers, may encourage a shift in attitudes towards flexible working. To the extent there is an appetite amongst male employees to work flexibly, whether or not for childcare reasons, employers will need to adapt and accept change.

The challenge faced by many employers is how to shift traditional attitudes and assumptions to support flexible working in the workplace for all employees irrespective of gender and, irrespective of the reasons for the request. This will inevitably take time but, in the interests of retaining talent and avoiding the employment tribunal, managers need to understand that flexible working is not solely related to childcare and nor is it something only women are interested in.

The new right to shared parental leave – to be introduced in 2015 – may also support a change in approach to childcare in particular. A recent ADP study revealed that a third of men aged 34 and under would be interested in taking up this new form of leave.

Employers should ensure that their gender and diversity strategies are supported not just by policy and procedure but also by a mindset among managers which is focused on the request itself and not coloured by gender stereotypical views. Failing to do so could result in employers finding themselves defending claims in an employment tribunal, running the risk of adverse publicity and creating limitations in terms of attracting and retaining talented staff.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/didmyself/

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