The Myth Of Flexi Time
In all the conversations about how to stem the leaking pipeline of talented Indian women from the workforce, language around flexibility reigns supreme. Indian companies that offer generous flexi time policies to new mothers re-entering the workforce are seen as being on the forefront of HR thinking. Ask any number of commentators — as we did at our recent Women & Work discussion — and a great proportion of them will respond that a lack of flexibility is forcing women into a binary decision about their careers.
But flexibility is a fraught and complex topic in a corporate environment. And it is hardly the one-size-fits-all solution that women’s workplace advocates tout it to be.
Let’s examine one rarely realized, if controversial, fact: Access to flexibility always exists for a rarified rung of top performers. A senior HR executive at a major Indian corporate, who asked to remain anonymous, pointed this out: A top performer, who has caught the attention of senior management and has proven her value to the organization over time, will undoubtedly be offered unfettered flexibility if she needs it.
It’s a discreet form of corporate elitism: Those who have already risen through the ranks and have distinguished themselves never face a lack of flexibility. Companies trip over themselves to hang onto this talent.
But what about the masses of women at junior levels, without the track records or clout to justify such an ask? What does an institutionalized policy of flexi time do for them?
In theory, flexi time would allow a new mother re-entering the workforce after maternity leave to transition slowly back into a full-time role. During the first year or two of a child’s life, when the demands on a parent are highest, she would be able to redesign her schedule according to her personal needs.
Unfortunately, in practice, flexi time rarely works in this way.
The first problem with flexi time (or part-time work, which is a similar offering) is that it is frequently offered only to new mothers. This reinforces the idea that childcare is a woman’s responsibility. When women returning from maternity leave are the only employees proactively offered this option, it’s a tacit reminder from HR that they should be perceived and treated differently in the workplace.
This subtly lays the groundwork for the second issue: Whether intentional or not, people psychologically “mommy-track” a women re-entering the workforce on a truncated in-office schedule. The fact that she may still be working full-time hours is lost on most people who don’t see her physical presence.
Teams and managers assume she won’t be available at a moment’s notice, cannot travel, has competing priorities; in essence, she cannot be relied upon any longer for the truly demanding and time-sensitive work. While this forbearance might come from the best intentions of a manager, it begins a slow process of sidelining that is apparent to co-workers and junior staff.
This can kick off a vicious cycle of engagement drain: Women feel less valued by their workplace, so they look to the home for fulfillment – which then leads to increased disengagement, more sidelining, and eventually, attrition, as the feelings of isolation and lack of value at the workplace ultimately make it a less attractive place to be than home.
This (and other) gender bias is real: In a recent study, 55% of Indian women had encountered workplace bias severe enough to make them consider scaling back their career goals, reducing their ambition and engagement, or quitting altogether.
Even when workplace attitudes don’t sideline women who choose a flexible track, in many instances the option itself is a false choice. Both Women & Work panelist Tina Trikha (former head of strategy for a major Indian corporate) as well as The Swaddle’s own Editor (in her previous job) remember feeling their employers’ offers of flexibility weren’t “real.”
To be clear, their employers were not purposely setting these women up to fail. Rather, they held jobs that simply could not be done well in a fragmented workday. Try telling a woman who has, through 12-hour days and perpetual availability, become a top performer, that her job can be done in half that time, or without being on-call 24/7, or from her home. She’ll tell you it’s just not possible. Staying at the same level of seniority and performance – while maintaining real boundaries around her availability – is often an impossibility.
So what needs to change, if flexibility is to be the harbinger of workplace equality it’s made out to be?
Flexi time options for all employees with family care responsibilities.
Offering flexi time only as a transition from maternity leave excludes everyone who has family care responsibilities beyond childcare. Flexibility can only be effective as a retention tool if it is available to all employees, regardless of gender or the nature of the family obligation that necessitates it.
Proper training for all line managers of flexi time workers.
Anyone who manages people needs to be properly sensitized to the various family needs that may impact an employees’ tenure and coached on how to appropriately guide those employees through their career. This includes offering and promoting flexible options to men and women alike, as well as setting the tone of their teams to ensure flexi time employees don’t feel sidelined or undervalued.
Senior role models.
Too many new parents feel rushed back into work by stories of the super-mommy executives who skipped maternity leave. This is an unhealthy narrative because it excludes one critical detail: Senior women are the least likely to need institutional flexibility because their seniority means they already have some control over their schedules. Senior leadership can determine meeting times, set deadlines around their personal schedules, and make a variety of other changes that mitigate the need for flexibility. Lower level employees don’t have that type of autonomy and won’t take it when offered if they don’t see their bosses and mentors taking it.
Long-range planning (with medium-term stop gaps).
Employers must recognize that the need for part-time or flexi time options is usually limited in duration. (Children grow; illnesses fade.) With a long-term view that requires career mentorship and planning beyond a year, employers can send a clear message that they want to invest in employees over the long-term, beyond any temporary breaks or flexi time arrangements.
Flexibility simply doesn’t work without these changes. While we recognize they are expensive propositions to implement, it is essential to retaining female employees at the junior and mid-levels – which builds retention and diversity at senior levels.
Cultural shifts take time, but they have to start somewhere.
This editorial is part of a series based on our Women & Work discussion. Catch an audio recap of the panel and weigh in with your own experience by taking our 20-question survey.
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