Why the gap between policy & practice in flexible work is costing women their careers

The last five years have seen an increase in comprehensive policies providing access to flexible work, but these policies are not being effectively employed in practice, according to new research.

The University of Sydney Business School’s Women and Work Research Group has conducted a study involving in-depth interviews with employees and line managers about the implementation of the company’s flexible work policies – and the results were disappointing.

The study’s co-author Dr Rae Cooper told Women’s Agenda that the growth in strong flexible work policies, both at a company and a national level, in recent years is encouraging, but that it appears there is a disconnect between the way the policies are written and the way they are implemented.

“We’ve seen more significant developments in policies surrounding access to flexible work in the last five years than we’ve ever seen before in Australia’s history. Governments and organisations have put a lot of effort into designing good policies for keeping women attached to the labour force after having children,” Dr Cooper said.

“But our study shows a dissonance between the policies’ intentions and their outcomes. We found that these policies are not being effectively borne out in practice and employees are not receiving the benefits they are entitled to.”

So if the policy framework has been developed and is theoretically effective, what is going wrong?

Dr Cooper says the disconnect between the policy and the practice is a result of a lack of awareness among both employees and managers about the how the policy it meant to operate.

“This means that managers are not offering employees the full benefits they are entitled to by the policy because the managers themselves do not have adequate information and training.”

“We spoke to employees in organisations with very strong flexible work policies who approached managers and were told, ‘we don’t do flexible work here’, when of course this was not the case.”

Dr Cooper said the effort put into developing sound policies is wasted if they are not properly understood by those operationalising them. This lack of understanding at manager level means that employees are missing out on flexible working arrangements that both national and organisational policies entitle them to.

“It is so important that companies have strong policies on flexible work, but they will not reap the benefits they are intended to if line managers are acting as gate keepers to those policies.”

Dr Cooper said employees’ lack of awareness of their own entitlements is also creating a barrier to access.

“We were very surprised at how low the levels of understanding of flexibility policies was among employees. We found that employees had a general understanding that they were entitled to ask for part time work, but they did not have an understanding of how these arrangements actually work in terms of things like pay, bonuses, workload and job design,” she said.

Dr Cooper said this has lead to employees asking for reduced hours, but failing to negotiate the broader implications of the change. She said employees need to be asking questions about what their new expected productivity and output would be, who would complete the extra work and how their new role would be designed.

“Failing to negotiate these implications often means that women ask for reduced hours, but feel under pressure to produce the same amount of work, so they just end up doing full time work and only receiving part time pay.”

This dissonance between policy and practice means women are often still sacrificing career progression for flexibility and according to Dr Cooper, this needs to change.

“We need to get rid of the idea that in order to work flexibly you have to sacrifice career success,” she said.

“Today in Australia we have the most highly educated female labour force in the world, and we owe it to those women, our society and our economy to not waste that talent.”

Lucia Osborne-Crowley

Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a journalist and producer at Women's Agenda.

Twitter: @LuciaOC_

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