Want flexible work? Don't rely on your employer

Flexible work is one of those things everyone likes to talk about, but very few people actually want to do anything about.

And that's especially true when it comes to employers.

For whatever reason -- tradition, fear of change, lack of trust, the effort required -- Australian business in general has not answered the call to seriously offer flexible work to employees

Indeed, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency's (WGEA) comprehensive analysis of gender equality released today shows just how little effort Australian employers have put in to promoting flexible work opportunities.

Just 13.6% of the 11,000 organisations to report to the Agency declared they have a strategy in place for flexible work.

Worse, more than half (52.3%) reported not even having a policy in place for flexible work.

So if you're one of the 3.9 million employees who work in one of the thousands of businesses that supplied information to the Agency, the chances are that flexible work is not being presented as a viable and sustainable approach to your career.

As Helen Conway tells Women's Agenda today, there's no silver bullet to solving workplace gender inequality. And the figures that paint the true extent of workplace inequality are not good – less than one in four positions in the top three levels of management are held by women, while women make up just 17.3% of CEOs. The gender pay gap, that is the difference in base remuneration between men and women working full-time, is at 19.9%, according to this research. 

The Abbott government will no doubt seize upon the figures presented by WGEA to reinvigorate the push for its new paid parental leave scheme. One that will pay new mothers their full replacement wage for six months, up to $50,000.

But it's that figure on the number of organisation with a flexible work strategy that I find particularly telling about what needs to be done. 

What's the point in helping mothers stay connected to the workforce with paid parental leave if the very workforce they'll return for is still structured in such a way that it seriously disadvantages those with caring responsibilities?

There is no shortage of studies to show Australian workers want flexibility

And at any conference, seminar or discussion regarding women's workforce participation, flexible work will inevitably come up as a key measure for opening more opportunities for women – often being touted by CEO's who like to promote the option, but have never demonstrated working flexibly themselves.

Outlining a strategy for flexible work may require effort but it doesn't have to be hard. We have the technology available to work from anywhere. We shouldn't need much convincing – given we fight through enough congestion and peak hour traffic to know it doesn't make sense to travel to and from work at the same time. And we actually have few structural reasons for hanging on to a way of working -- the Monday to Friday, nine to five -- that was created during the industrial era.

It's telling that one of the country's largest employers, Telstra, has managed to put a comprehensive, flexible working strategy in place with its 'All Roles Flex' initiative. Supported at all levels of management, the measure means that all positions are considered flexible from the outset. It's managed to roll out this policy across it's entire organisation this year, following a successful pilot study in 2013.

The Telstra strategy is mainstreaming flexible work. It's removing it from being a 'women's issue' to a form of working that simply makes sense for everyone, no matter what their level, gender, or parental status.

Like Conway says, there is no silver bullet to closing the pay gap and getting more women in to management. But until Australia gets to the point of offering legitimate, flexible working options, it's unlikely any measure promoting gender equality will make a significant impact.

Whatever solutions we pursue, we must also accept our actual system of working isn't working. It might be inconvenient having to adjust our thinking, but it isn't hard – nor is it an option to simply accept the status quo.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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