In March 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee proposed a range of policies that aims to support fathers to play a larger role in a child’s life. In it, the committee recommends that all jobs be advertised as flexible from day one, unless there are business reasons not to.
Strengthening the right to work flexibly for family-friendly purposes is crucial in ensuring that the policy changes around paternity and shared parental leave do actually work to help even the grounds for men and women in the household and the labour market.
First of all, flexible working entails not only part-time working but other arrangements too. These include flexitime, which is flexible start and finish times, condensed working where employees work a full-time load in four days, annualised hours, which includes having a set number of hours an employee works spread across a year, and teleworking. This is working from home or in other public spaces.
These types of flexible working are already widely used in the UK. However, for many and especially for men, flexible working is used for performance-enhancing goals, for example to catch up on work at home. Even when used for family-friendly purposes, flexible working can sometimes result in longer working hours. Many employees, especially men, are not able to use flexibility in their jobs for family-friendly purposes due to fear of repercussions in their jobs and promotions, which can explain why they end up working longer hours when working flexibly.
Making all jobs flexible removes the stigma flexible working may carry and allows people to shape their jobs around their family demands without flexibility encroaching on family life. It will be especially those in low-skilled, low-paid jobs that will benefit the most, given that for these employees access to good flexible-working arrangements is limited. This is not only due to the fact that it may be harder to have flexibility in these jobs, but also to do with lack of trust from managers that flexibility, which is essentially giving employees more control over their work, will result in equal, or better, performance outcomes.
Finally, making flexible working the norm for family-friendly purposes may help provide equal footing for men and women in the labour market. Because women still do, and are expected to be responsible for, childcare mothers have no choice but to use this flexibility to better fit work around family demands. This, and the possibility of long maternity leaves, can lead to employers, even if not consciously, discriminating against women during hiring and promotions processes. When both men and women are equally likely to take periods of leave and work flexibly to take larger roles in childcare, such discriminatory practices may end as well.
Dr Heejung Chung is reader in sociology and social policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent