Is flexible working the key to gender equality?

As far as Tuesday evenings go this was pretty good. Last night I attended a debate, hosted by the Diversity Council of Australia, moderated by ABC journalist Tony Jones, about whether flexible working is the key to gender equality. The affirmative team featured Dr Graeme Russell, Annabel Crabb and Tracey Spicer while Professor Marian Baird, Lisa Annese and Geoff Hogg had the task of disproving the statement. Admittedly it may be because I need to venture out more but to me last night was about as good as a weeknight can get.

Before the debate commenced those of us in the audience were asked to cast our own votes. The results showed the affirmative team had the bigger challenge with 41% agreeing with the proposition and 59% disagreeing. By the end of the debate the margin widened: 68% said no and just 32% said yes. It was a resounding victory for the negative team. So can we conclude that flexibility is not the key to gender equality?

Here I must confess. I arrived at the debate firmly in the affirmative camp. From the minute I got the email about the event I knew which team I would be barracking for. I recall I even momentarily pitied the team tasked with the job of disproving the topic so fervent was my belief that flexibility is indeed the solution to workplace inequality.

By the end of last night's debate, however, I had changed camps. Like a few others in the room I crossed the divide but not because my belief in the importance of flexibility is flimsy – it isn't. But the discussion made me realise this -- flexible work is certainly important in creating more equal workplaces but it certainly isn't the key to gender equality more broadly. A technicality perhaps but a rather significant one.

Professor Marian Baird, the director of the women and work research group at the University of Sydney, was the first speaker for the negative and she made a convincing point that I hadn't contemplated. She argued that flexible work actually leads to greater inequality in the workplace. Because the overwhelming majority of employees who currently access flexible work arrangements are women – and particularly working mothers – it serves to reinforce the gap between men and women in the workplace.

"Evidence shows that women, especially mothers, use flexible work policies more than men and this then leads to hours gaps, pay gaps and promotions gaps," Baird said. "Flexible working can also mean career death, when it is assumed to signal that an employee is not career focused and lacks commitment."
As it currently stands, she says, the subliminal message about those who work flexibly is that they're not as committed to their jobs. Because of this Baird argued the path to equality lies elsewhere and at the commencement of her time on stage I have to say I was inclined to agree.

There is no doubt that – at the moment -- flexibility in working arrangements can facilitate greater workforce participation by working mothers but the point that was made by almost every speaker is that gender equality will only exist when that statement is as applicable to men as it is to women. Right now it isn't and flexibility alone isn't like to render it so.

Instead the speakers all agreed that gender equality requires a cultural and attitudinal shift at home and at work.

In this regard the internationally renowned researcher and industry consultant Dr Graeme Russell – who argued for the affirmative team - made many instructive points. "If we don't get equality in caring we won't get equality in paid work," Dr Russell said. "Framing flexibility as arrangements and policies has not and will not deliver equality. These things indicate flexibility is on the periphery and it reinforces the patriarchal nature of work."

He says embedding flexibility as mainstream will is crucial to change the way paid work is currently structured. "Flexibility is the stimulus to redesign the workforce," Dr Russell said.

ABC journalist Annabel Crabb started with a snapshot of her own 'ridiculous' career and family life that is ably facilitated by flexibility before continuing the argument for the affirmative team. She highlighted the cultural barrier at the root of all workplace inequality.

"We are still gobsmacked when a man takes parental leave because there is still a pretty bloody reliable assumption that women will still be shouldering most of the caring responsibilities," Crabb explained. "We're not getting anywhere until the work life juggle is everybody's juggle; not the woman's. Women can't move between their careers and home with ease until men do the same. Every man who works til 10pm at his desk every night isn't only promoting his own career but he is limiting others."

She argued that it is not the fault of flexibility itself that it remains a women's issue rather it is the fault of the cultural barriers that need dismantling.

The managing director of the Treasury Casino and Hotel Brisbane and Echo Entertainment, Geoff Hogg had the somewhat daunting task of following Crabb but he did it admirably well. In preparing for this debate Hogg explained that he approached many of the successful females he know and asked them for their views on what has facilitated their careers.

"Not one of them came back to me with a single point on their list," he explained. "When creating change there is rarely a silver billet and there is no silver bullet for gender equality." Hogg argued the issue of gender equality is too complex for flexibility alone to overcome.

Journalist, presenter, radio broadcaster and the final speaker for the affirmative team, Tracey Spicer, argued that the relationship between flexibility and equality is clear.

"To me, it's a mathematical equation: greater flexibility for both sexes plus clear career paths will mean gender equality," she said. "Flexibility allows us [her and her husband] to live the dream of 50:50 parenting and work."

She acknowledged the conditions need to be right for that to occur, and that there are other tools required, but flexibility is critical.

The DCA's director for programs and development Lisa Annese was the final speaker for the night, consolidating the argument the negative team had made.

"We're not saying flexible work isn't a component but we're saying it might not be everything. It may not be the key," Annese argued.

She made a very valid point that there is much more to gender equality than mainstreaming flexibility. Issues including violence against women and unconscious bias are not going to be solved by flexibility.

"The road to gender equality starts long before a person even applies for a tax file number," Annese argued. "The answers lie not in the boardroom but in the class room. It's not just about what happens in the conference room but at the dinner table."

My conclusion is that gender equality is a much bigger issue than flexibility alone. What do you think?

Georgina Dent

Georgina Dent is a former editor of Women's Agenda, she is also an editor, journalist and former lawyer. 

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