A quiet responsibility: how mothers manage the complexities of flexible working

Zoe Young.jpg

Zoe Young

This International Women’s Day, Zoe Young, author of Women’s Work: How Mothers Manage Flexible Working in Careers and Family Life, highlights the lengths women go to in managing the complexities of flexible working.

This year marks a hundred years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 lifted the bar on women entering the professions. It meant women could no longer be kept out of rewarding careers in law, accounting, engineering, finance, medicine, and academia.

On IWD 2019 with its theme of #balanceforbetter we are asking what now needs to happen to help women stay and move up in the jobs that 100 years ago only men could do? My research published in Women’s Work in this milestone year has some answers.

Women’s Work lifts the lid on 30 professional women’s home and work lives in a year of working flexibly. They are highly educated, experienced women who have not yet reached the top of their firms. They are mothers and adjusting their jobs to something flexible in hours, schedule or location of work. The impressive resilience required to go part-time, to job share and to work from home in jobs that weren’t designed with these working models in mind are brought to life with vivid personal stories.

Jane, a senior manager and lone mother of two children cuts her full-time hours by one day a week to reduce her work-life stress; Emma, seeks “a bit of slack in the system” by carving out two half days a week to cover a gap in childcare for her youngest; Jenny a civil servant returns from first maternity leave and compresses a full-time job into fewer days; Andrea a lawyer and married mother of three children starts a new four-week job; and Esther, is a mother of two and, one half of the first and only job-share partnership at her level in her organisation’s history.

“They go to great lengths to implement their adjusted work pattern in ways that safeguard their continued inclusion in the workplace”

What all thirty women have in common is the terrific responsibility they feel to make their new way of working a success. They go to great lengths to implement their adjusted work pattern in ways that safeguard their continued inclusion in the workplace.

As Erin, a part-time finance manager said, “I think it is my responsibility to make it work”. I describe that responsibility as a quiet one, meaning that it is not questioned and just accepted. Because working flexibly is a departure from the norm and an apparently voluntary choice, it is the individual’s responsibility – not the organisation’s – to redesign the job, to adjust the workload, and to participate fully in organisational life without burdening others or disrupting the usual ways of doing things.

These women are fatigued by working flexibly in inflexible work environments. The effort required to continuously craft a job to make it fit with the time available; working intensively to get through an unadjusted workload faster, as well as performing well and positioning for advancement; avoiding stigma and motherhood penalties – the pernicious associations between women’s working hours and their commitment to their careers.

Summed up by one male boss who said to Esther “I might be a dinosaur but can you stop telling people you’re a job share because they’ll think you’re a bit rubbish”. All of these pressures add up to a significant mental load.

“a systemic inattention to how we work and what needs to happen to make jobs genuinely flexible”

These women are not unique. Their experiences resonate with my work as a business consultant. The complexities they navigated and the problems they experienced bending to fit inflexible organisational structures and cultures highlights a systemic inattention to how we work and what needs to happen to make jobs genuinely flexible. Not addressing the structures and cultures that hold women back is equally bad for women’s progress and for modern workplaces.

Twenty-first century women have had to adapt to working models designed by and for twentieth century men at times when women were excluded from the professional workplace. They have done it well so far.

But if women continue to make up the majority of flexible workers and the burden for making flexibility work in practice is loaded on the individual and is not at least shared by the organisation, then equality and #balanceforbetter will remain out of reach for future generations of professional women.

 

Dr Zoe Young is a sociologist, writer and consultant.

Her fresh take on a flexible future of work drives her consultancy practice Half the Sky, where she helps organisations tackle the structural and cultural barriers that hold women back at work.

Her academic work focuses on gender, work and organisation, with particular focus on how motherhood impact women’s lives and careers. She completed her PhD at the University of Sussex.

Prior to this she worked in HR and management consultancy for many years. Her book Women’s Work: how mothers manage flexible working in careers and family life lifts the lid on women’s work-life experiences today in the jobs that 100 years ago only men could do. It is published by social purpose publisher Bristol University Press.

Womens work [FC]Women’s Work by Zoe Young is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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