In the run up to International Women’s Day 2019, Juggle Founder Romanie Thomas asks: are we almost at the tipping point?
This morning I read an interview in The Times with Caroline Criado Perez to promote her new book, Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. I was aware of some facts but others shocked me. Among them that 90% of animals used in scientific testing are male and that women are 50% (50%!) more likely to be misdiagnosed of a heart attack because we present different symptoms to men. We are not accommodating the wants and needs of women at a very basic level, because the data that has shaped our everyday existence is itself inherently biased.
Historical events shape our working life too. For example, the 9am-5pm structure started because of the agricultural revolution to coincide with daylight hours. This rigid work pattern blossomed during the factory driven industrial age. It does not, however, sit well with the cognitively driven work of the 21st century, particularly when technology exists for a more customised and flexible structure. So why do we cling onto it if there is overwhelming evidence that flexibility drives happiness, which in turns drives performance and (good) retention in companies?
The tipping point
It is possible (and I hope probable) that we are on the cusp of a real and lasting change towards flexibility. I believe this could happen very rapidly IF flexibility extends to men taking a greater share of caring responsibilities. Women are often silent about the struggles they face and for good reason; they are horribly discriminated against if they speak of tiredness and the real challenges of parenting and working. Men face a different set of damaging biases, but those at leadership level will have a greater platform to speak about these issues – and consequently drive change in workplace culture. Simply speaking, we will have more visible data points about how flexibility is valued and how work becomes unmanageable for many without it.
Work naturally favours those who are unencumbered and 100% committed to their employers. I don’t believe a move to flexibility takes away the favour that they have, as their advantage is so great (and often engineered through sacrifice and drive of the individual – therefore deserving of recognition). Flexibility is simply about recognising that there is room for more types of “excellent” in a meeting (and that it’s in business’s interests to do so), and about lifting knowledge workers from the drudge of work patterns only suitable for a different type of work in a different century.
Often people believe that the link between flexible working and gender equality is simple cause and effect: implement flexible working and attract more women. There is an uncomfortable rub in this narrative and it perpetuates the myth that women are less ambitious and hard working than men. I believe the true link is more nuanced than this.
Women to date have largely worked in unequal business environments. Now we have an option to work in fairer, more democratic ones. Flexibility enables women AND men to share work and home responsibilities. It actually frees women up to accelerate their career when they need to and gives room for parents to keep their hand in the game during child rearing years, rather than dropping out altogether. This works for men too – all flexibility does here is provide a more balanced experience for professionals to take advantage of. Flexibility therefore IS the indicator that an organisation is more thoughtful and inclusive, which is precisely what great female professionals are looking for. This is the the link between the “what” (flexible working”) and “why” (gender equality).
I am enormously hopeful about business change when it comes to gender equality at leadership level because business has a significant advantage over society (which has taken an extremely long time to truly address the issue). Criado-Perez’s book offers irrefutable evidence that the world we’ve grown up in is inherently biased against women. But in business we have been systematic and data driven in our approach already. Women too have been logical and voted with their feet about the state of the workforce. All that is left now is for men to feel struggle themselves and to collectively share their experience, speaking out against the futility of uniform working, fit for a different century.