Flexible working, inflexible stereotypes

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By Darcie Summers on

Durham Uni psychology grad Darcie Summers analyses the gendered implications of the UK passing the Flexible Working Bill

On 20 July, The Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill was passed by the UK government, paving the way for greater workplace flexibility nationwide. The bill, which was introduced by MP Yasmin Qureshi, aims to provide workers with increased access to flexible work arrangements.

While working parents were first given the formal right to seek flexible working in 2003, this was extended to all employees with 26 weeks of continuous employment in 2014. Now, the new legislation takes this a step further to enhance workers’ flexibility.

Anticipated to come into effect in 2024, this will allow employees to submit two requests for flexible working within any 12-month period, as opposed to the previous limit of one request. Flexible working encompasses working that is more suited to the employee’s needs, including varying workplace locations and hours. Additionally, employers now have a shorter decision-making window of three months when responding to such requests, streamlining the process for both businesses and employees.

The importance of flexible working for working parents

The new legislation has the potential to initiate a key shift in attitudes towards flexible working, leading to greater transparency and normalisation of flexible work arrangements within businesses. It holds significant benefits for working parents, and the government has been progressively focusing on finding solutions to support this segment of the workforce. Work-life balance laws, covering maternity and parental rights, play a crucial role in promoting work/family balance and also gender equality.

Notably, these laws have evolved from exclusively addressing work/family balance to incorporating gender equality objectives and expanding rights for men. Fathers are now increasingly interested in playing an active role in the upbringing of their families, especially after the pandemic pushed many fathers out of the workplace and into caregiving roles in the home.

The introduction of the Shared Parental Leave (SPL) scheme in 2015 was a milestone, enabling parents to share leave and promoting gender balance in caregiving responsibilities. The SPL was introduced to permit the mother or primary adopter to convert 50 weeks of maternity leave into SPL, which meant this SPL period could then be shared with the father or partner in a much more flexible schedule. With this change in legislation came a promotion of gender balance in caregiving, which appears positive at face value.

The challenge of flexible working stigma for men

Despite the benefits and legal provisions for flexible working, studies have revealed the existence of a “flexibility stigma” particularly affecting men. Men often face harsher consequences in the workplace when prioritising family and caregiving over work. The pandemic indeed brought about a slight shift in caregiving roles, with more men performing unpaid care work and embracing caregiving as an integral part of their identity.

However, societal expectations persist, leading to men being more reluctant to seek flexible working arrangements, fearing its impact on job security and career progression. On the other hand, women are often expected to balance work and caregiving roles, although men’s careers are expected to progress linearly, unaffected. This societal pressure can have tragic consequences for both genders, but impacts such as overworking and poor mental health can specifically be attributed to the ‘flexibility stigma’ facing men.

The passing of the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill in the UK marks a positive step towards fostering greater workplace flexibility. By providing workers with increased access to flexible work arrangements, the bill has the potential to promote work-life balance and again gender equality. However, it also brings to light the persistent challenge of addressing gender stereotypes and the flexibility stigma, particularly for men.

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While the introduction of the SPL scheme aimed to encourage fathers’ active involvement in caregiving, its limited uptake indicates a need for further efforts to normalise flexible working for all genders. Furthermore, whilst state paternity and state maternity remain equal in compensation, some companies give mothers enhanced pay across the maternity leave period but this enhanced amount to fathers only for their two weeks paternity leave.

This kind of policy was challenged unsuccessfully as sex discrimination before the Court of Appeal in Ali v Capital Consumer Management Ltd and Hextall v Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police [2019] EWCA Civ 900. There is currently no legal obligation to extend this compensation to men. This leads us to question whether instead of improving men’s flexibility, men will be less likely to use the SPL due to the combined stigma for taking time off work that they face in the workplace, but also now a monetary loss. Providing equal compensation during parental leave could go some way to combatting regressive societal expectations on caretaking responsibilities, and contribute to breaking down the barriers that discourage men from embracing flexible work arrangements.

The success of the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill will depend on proactive measures to address gender stereotypes, promote flexibility for all workers, and create an inclusive work environment where caregiving responsibilities are equally shared. Achieving these goals will undoubtedly pave the way for the more equitable and balanced workforce the UK has been aspiring towards for years.

Darcie Summers is a recent psychology graduate from Durham University. She is an aspiring lawyer with a particular interest in employment law.


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