Workplace flexibility is back in the news again, with a University of Sydney study confirming what many Australian women already know from experience: that flexible work policies are often just words that don’t mean a thing.
It is deeply frustrating that we still see this gap between company policy and workplace culture. While corporate Australia likes to pride itself on promoting flexibility at work, in reality, not much is changing.
From time to time we’ll hear from (male) CEOs and senior managers of Australia’s largest companies about the steps they are taking to promote gender equality. CEOs will be applauded for every favorable comment on the issue.
But what do the women employees of those organisations think? What have been their experiences?
According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 45% of employers have policies on flexible work, family and caring responsibility, but only about 13% actually have a strategy to implement them.
In other words, there’s a lot of talk, but it’s not backed up by action.
I represent employees of a range of companies, professions and levels of seniority. I help women navigate the real, albeit subtle, workplace discrimination that continues to exist.
My clients tell me that for all the public statements or aspirational goals, the discriminatory practices and culture remain. A quota target, for example, of 20% women on boards by 2016, means little to the mid-level manager, who is being ostracized and isolated from her male peers or who is struggling to work flexibly within the limited confines offered by her employer.
The banking and finance industry, for example, prides itself on the advancement of women. Yet its male dominated culture is notorious. Women continue to be expected to – and do – “put up” with the old boys mentality. But there comes a point when their health is impacted and they stop work, or they stand up and complain. One way or another they are “managed” out of the business.
Women continue to be sacked while on maternity leave or for trying to work flexibly. Often their employer is a large corporate that has publicly promoted its family friendly policies. Despite these policies senior and middle management actively dissuade their use. Even for employers that encourage workplace flexibility, there is always a point when the employer’s patience wears thin.
Women continue to be investigated, and suspended, for matters that men are not. Namely, their tone, their behaviour, or for “failing to understand the needs of the business”.
Despite many of my women clients ultimately being exonerated they feel that they can’t return to work. Generally, the employer doesn’t want them back. Either way it usually results in an exit. Often with some form of compensation, albeit never enough for the reputational, health and financial damage it has caused.
The problem is that the systemic practices and beliefs that need to change are often so deeply rooted in the corporate mindset. They are considered the norm. They do not, on their face, appear discriminatory. In many instances they are intricately interwoven with the way the business makes its money or how it measures the success of its employees.
Such examples include the need to be available 24/7 and that anything less somehow means you are less dedicated. Professional service firms that continue to measure the value of its employees on their billable units, and the invariable catch 22 of women needing to be assertive, like a man, but not too assertive, because then she’s a “bitch” or a “bully”.
If companies really want to address gender equality then they need to take radical steps. Companies need to educate staff about the different ways women manage as opposed to men and that a different approach does not mean she is a bully or incompetent.
They need to address why senior female executives seem to be exited, or exit, the business, just before they break the senior executive barrier. Companies should review their workload practices for women working flexibly and ensure that their expected workload corresponds to their approved working days. These are just a few examples.
So, next time we hear about how a company has introduced a new women friendly policy or a senior corporate figure has espoused the importance of gender equality, I encourage you to think twice before commending them. We need corporate Australia to do more than just promote gender equality. They need to take real steps to make it happen.