Men and flexible work: Why is it so difficult?

Flexible work
Laura McGeoch


written on February 9, 2017

Big changes have occurred in men’s work and family experiences over the past 30-40 years yet they still struggle to find flexible work. This period has been characterised by increasing numbers of dual-earner families, with 54 per cent of all couple families having both partners employed, according to Diversity Council of Australia.

There is also a small but growing number of men who are opting to work part-time or flexibly to better balance work and family. Others want to, but are hampered by workplace culture and social stereotypes. Thirty per cent of men – up from 16 per cent 20 years ago – now work flexibly to help care for children, according to new figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Meanwhile, the number of dads working from home to care for children has doubled from seven to 14 per cent since the mid 1990s.

A much smaller proportion of men have established part-time arrangements to help care for children, but this has risen from one to five per cent.

Many large organisations now have flexible work policies open to both genders and the benefits they deliver to employees and the workplace have been well documented. However, The 100% Project, an organisation that challenges workplace gender inequality, says there is still a wide perception among men that these arrangements are off limits to them.

Its ‘Men at Work’ research and consultations with senior leaders indicate that unconscious bias exists among men who more strongly associate work-life balance with women. It’s not that men don’t want greater balance – 76 per cent of respondents said there were times when they had needed it. But only 27 per cent had requested flexible work.

“It’s seen as a conversation women tend to have and it’s not a conversation a lot of men are comfortable having,” says Mike Tanner, 100% Project deputy chair and people, culture and strategy business partner.

Long-held societal norms of breadwinners and caregivers remain a barrier to change. Indeed, Monash University’s ‘Fathers, Work and Care’ study of more than 900 Australian fathers, found that only 16 per cent felt they received equal acceptance as carers in their workplace when compared to women.

The impetus for change, says Tanner, needs to come from men, who must adjust their own attitudes if they want their desire for more balance to become a reality. This includes overcoming assumptions that their part-time or flexible work request won’t be accepted or that the arrangement won’t be successful for their particular role.

The NAB example

Flexibility has become a fundamental part of working at NAB in recent years. Eighty-six per cent of the bank’s staff work flexibly, with a higher proportion of males doing so (88 per cent compared to 84 per cent of females). Scott Butterworth, acting chief risk officer, customer products and services, says working flexibly helps him to be a better dad.

“I can pick up my two boys from school, go on school camps with them and take part in other activities that are important to my kids,” he says. The benefits to NAB, he believes, are a more loyal and balanced employee.

But alleviating other colleagues’ concerns are still a challenge. “I think that men are sometimes, incorrectly in my view, worried about the impact of flexible work on their careers and career progression,” says Butterworth.

His advice to any man wanting to change his work pattern. “First, start with what is important to you and to your family, and then think about how flexible work might fit into that. Ultimately, if you are more balanced in your life, you will be a more effective employee and that will enable you to do well, both in your personal and work lives.”

Optional cut

For Tim Gorst, senior manager wealth transformation, knowing that his manager had once worked part-time and was an advocate for it meant he had “no concerns at all” about requesting a four-day week or that it would hurt his career.

Gorst started taking Fridays off last year. Although it meant less income, he says moving more of his time to his family seemed like “the right thing to do” after working at NAB full-time for 20 years.

“I’m married with three children aged eight, 12 and 14, so there are good reasons to spend more time out of the office,” he says. “I also live near the beach and like to go surfing to stay healthy.”

Gorst makes his role work by being “a little more ruthless” when prioritising his time. “This includes purging some of the lower-value activities that were part of my full-time working week.”

He takes accountability for only taking on work he knows he can deliver in four days and sets clear expectations about delivery timelines. It’s also important that he remains flexible. Sometimes, he’ll work an extra day (which he later gets back in lieu) when needed or take calls on his day off.

Given that some male colleagues are interested in one day having a similar arrangement, he’s happy to prove it’s a realistic option.

“For some, the timing maybe isn’t quite right. For others it might be more of a confidence thing. I can show my colleagues how to make it work.

While scaling back is harder for some roles and within certain industries, it’s often more attainable than first presumed, he says. “People just need to learn how to think differently about their jobs. Particularly senior people.”

HR can demonstrate that work options other than full-time are genuinely open to both genders by encouraging men in senior positions to work part-time or flexibly, says Tanner. Showcasing best practices and case studies in an organisation, and measuring subsequent positive engagement will also help.

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One thought on “Men and flexible work: Why is it so difficult?

  1. We still hold deeply gendered views about work and caring. As a recent example, I noticed a number of starting school LinkedIn posts making much of fathers whose work enabled them to be involved in their children’s transition. Men may be stuck in full time work but women are often stuck and rendered less visible if they “choose” flexible or part time work.

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