Posts Tagged 'International Women’s Day'

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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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

What would Beatrice Webb say now?

On this International Women’s Day Georgia Smith, Communications Officer at Webb Memorial Trust, highlights the accomplishments of sociologist and social reformer Beatrice Webb, a woman who was truly bold for change. 

Georgia Smith

International Women’s Day offers an opportunity to celebrate the work of a pioneering social reformer whose lifetime of research into the economic conditions of the working class enabled much of the social advancement of the 20th century but who is now largely forgotten: Beatrice Webb (1858-1943).

The legacy of Beatrice Webb

Beatrice Webb’s contribution was to provide substantial intellectual capital for the formation of the welfare state at a time when women didn’t even have the vote.

Her Minority Report on the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress 1905–09 recommended “a national minimum of civilised life” and advocated that government – rather than charity – should be responsible for the well-being of citizens.

Amongst other achievements Beatrice and her husband Sidney founded the New Statesman and the London School of Economics. She is also credited with coining the term “collective bargaining”

“…the seed from which later blossomed the welfare state.”

Continue reading ‘What would Beatrice Webb say now?’

#MakingItHappen – International Women’s Day 2015

To celebrate International Women’s Day, which takes place this year on Sunday 8th March, we asked author of Women of Power: Half a century of female presidents and prime ministers worldwide, Torild Skard, to share her reflections on where we are today in terms of political gender equality and the necessary conditions to enable women to take crucial leadership roles within politics. 

Torild Skard

Torild Skard

For more than a century women have spoken out, marched and demonstrated for equality and rights on International Women’s Day. And there has been progress, though it has been uneven and slow. Whilst the gender gap globally has been nearly closed in areas such as health and education, it continues to remain wide open in economic participation and even more so in political empowerment.

In 2014/15 only 22 per cent of the members of parliament and 17 per cent of the government ministers worldwide were women. Not more than 9 per cent of the nation states had a woman as head of state or government. This is a record high, but still very far from gender balance, even from the benchmark of 30 per cent women.

Gender equality roadmap

The UN theme for international Women’s Day 2015 is “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!”. Governments and activists around the world will commemorate the 20th anniversary year of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a historic gender equality roadmap signed by 189 governments with the necessary strategic objectives and actions for achieving women’s rights.

The endorsement of the world’s governments of the Beijing Platform for Action in addition to the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is decisive, but they then have to ‘walk the talk’. And follow up effectively.

Looking at steps that have been taken in the direction of equality – such as the increase in the number of women presidents and prime ministers worldwide over the past 50 years – can provide useful lessons to help us (and, perhaps more importantly, the politicians and policy makers) understand what conditions are necessary to achieve the goals they have agreed to.

“How could a woman cope with such a demanding task?”


Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike (1916-2000), the modern world’s first female head of Government, Copyright: Anuradha Dullewe Wijeyeratne

In 1960 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman prime minister in what was then Ceylon, it caused international concern. How could a woman cope with such a demanding task?

Half a century later the woman president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, received the Peace Prize from an impressed Nobel Committee for her contribution to “ensuring peace, promoting economic and social development and strengthening the position of women”.

Attitudes evidently have changed – a bit. But all over the world national political institutions are still dominated by men. How did women manage to rise to the top, and what happened when they got to power?


HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Credit: Wiki Creative Commons

During the half century after 1960 about 40 per cent of industrial countries have had one or more women as heads of state or government, while this has been the case for only 20 per cent of developing countries. High living standards improving people’s health, education and income may contribute to broader participation in politics.

In fact, most of the women presidents and prime ministers during this period were very well educated. Many had long professional careers before they became political leaders and achieved very high positions. To be able to get to the top, more women top leaders had such positions than their male predecessors.

Industrial countries have also often been democratic. And the great majority of women presidents and prime ministers around the world obtained their positions in countries that were characterized as “democracies”.

But the type of democratic system makes a difference. For example: of the women national leaders most rose to the top in countries with both a president and a prime minister. There were two top positions and a woman obtained one of them as part of a “top leader pair”. Very few women acquired the top position where there was only an executive president or an executive prime minister.

If a democratic system is necessary to increase women’s representation in the national political leadership, it does not follow that this is sufficient.

“An active feminist movement was required to increase the participation of women and their access to power”


After World War II, Western industrial countries mostly had liberal democracies with political rights for women. But women were usually not mobilized and welcomed in established political institutions. An active feminist movement was required to increase the participation of women and their access to power.

The women presidents and prime ministers did not become top leaders primarily because they were women, but because they felt they should lead the nation. Some also acted in the same way as their male colleagues, fighting on their terms, without being particularly engaged in ‘women’s issues’.

But many women top leaders tried to compromise, looking after both men’s and women’s interests. And a certain number challenged the male domination and explicitly promoted women friendly or feminist policies. In most cases, it made a difference that a woman rose to the top instead of a man, but the difference was often limited.

Dynamic women’s movement

To empower women then, woman-friendly democratization processes have to be actively implemented. A dynamic women’s movement is needed as a driving force and men with power must take their responsibility for reform of institutions and policies.

This means, among others things, that the political culture, the political parties and the media must ensure that women can promote their interests on equal terms with men. Parliament and government must become more representative, for example by changing the electoral system and adopting measures such as quotas to increase the recruitment of women. And “good governance” must entail emphasis on participation, protection of human rights and promotion of social justice and equality.

Women of Power Women of Power publishes in paperback on Monday 9th March. Copies are available from our website here & if you’re a subscriber to our newsletter you’ll receive a 35% discount on the website too (subscribe here if you’re not part of our community yet!)

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