Current Issue #488

Why gender equality in the professions requires more men to 'flex'

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Are inflexible working environments making it harder for women and men to lead balanced, rewarding lives?

The worlds of law, finance and other professions are built on selling ‘time’, with an employee’s value based on how well they can spin their working day into billable increments. But is this practice a key barrier for women, and men, who seek to share responsibilities outside of the workplace?

Time-costing is the bane of many professionals’ working lives. It requires an employee to identify and record every six-minute interval of their working day, along with a description of the task they worked on, how long they spent on it and what client will be charged for it. Employers often expect workers to bill between six and eight hours each day to meet set budget targets, which are relative to their position in the hierarchy.

This model, where an employee’s value and career advancement is linked to their ability to rake in money for every waking minute of the day, is often incompatible with the growing number of working parents within these professions. Unsurprisingly, workers who must accommodate both the regular – and less predictable – demands of parenthood into their working day often find their value in a workplace, and future career trajectories, stymied.

More often than not this falls to women, leaving the upper ranks of these professions often filled with men who can leave family responsibilities to others, or bypass them entirely without judgement. A Grattan Institute study published today shows how having children can dramatically affect women’s lifetime earnings when compared to men in the same boat.

I distinctly remember the first few weeks of maternity leave when I was still very much in the habit of mentally accounting for six-minute increments of my working day. Was I being productive?  Had I reached my daily billing target? Have I clocked up a sufficient number of billable units to justify a quick trip to the toilet?

“Unsurprisingly, workers who must accommodate both the regular – and less predictable – demands of parenthood into their working day often find their value in a workplace, and future career trajectories, stymied.”

Well, let’s just say my ‘utilisation’ (a fancy word used in the corporate sector to measure productivity by calculating the number of billable hours divided by the number of hours recorded in a particular time period) was probably sitting at about 150 per cent, but my supervising partner (my then-husband, who has since ‘resigned’) scarcely noticed the laborious work that I’d undertaken. And don’t get me started on the pay.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if the same time-based costing method was applied to domestic and child-related responsibilities – and if men who thrive in time-based professional environments would face any setbacks at all for ‘under-performing’ on the home front.  

It is broadly accepted that there is a systemic undervaluing of women’s work – whether in a domestic setting or a professional setting – and that women’s unpaid work subsidises the paid economy.  This leads to questions of what we value and how we value it.

If men and women were paid a comparative salary for their domestic and child-related efforts, would more men be inclined to pursue ‘work’ in this area? You can very easily work a 70-hour week (some men seem to be drawn to this as a key indicator of success) and fear of redundancy is very low.

Of course, time-based costing in a domestic setting provides little indication at all of ‘value’. For instance, can the ever-multitasking single parent charge twice for ‘attendances’ completed simultaneously? In this arena, the profits are not monetary but arguably more valuable. By instead focusing on efficiency, innovation, job-satisfaction and culture, better outcomes are derived and purpose reigns supreme.

Having now left the legal profession, I often find myself still stuck in that same old mindset. Without the structure of the usual office day, I am constantly trying to assess my productivity, value and job satisfaction. However, now the variables have changed. I have created my own work ‘culture’ (by being truly flexible, and by only taking on work from which I derive a sense of purpose) and these cultural changes have led to much higher job satisfaction in relation to both my paid and unpaid work.  

“It is frustrating that women are constantly expected to be innovative when it comes to redesigning their careers after motherhood because traditional employment models, particularly hierarchical models, become inaccessible.”

Creating positive cultural changes in the workplace in order to promote and foster flexibility, diversity and inclusion is integral to advancing gender equality. But it is frustrating that women are constantly expected to be innovative when it comes to redesigning their careers after motherhood because traditional employment models, particularly hierarchical models, become inaccessible.

If attitudes about caring work were to evolve, the benefits to women, men, children and the economy would be immeasurable. The ‘value’ or the ‘return’ of parenting includes good relationships with your children and a more balanced approach to life. This could in turn help unpick some of the other systemic issues that affect the professions, from physical and mental health pressures, overworking and burnout to relationship breakdowns outside the office and unhealthy relationships within it.

But how to effect this change? Employers could start by setting targets for the number of men in flexible work, and assist and encourage men to juggle domestic and professional life.

Today’s professional man is more likely to also have a professional spouse. But even if these men are increasingly up for taking on their share of domestic and child-related responsibilities to support their partners in achieving their own professional goals, in many cases their employers are still playing catch-up, and lack the systems in place to accommodate men who need flexible working arrangements. It is essential for workplaces to implement formal policies and strategies to support flexible working for employees (and not just women or even parents).

For too long the professions have been dominated by the ability of workers, usually men, to ‘flex’ their professional muscles – their ability to network, to work long hours, to rely on the unpaid domestic support of spouses.

For a more equal professional sector, we’ll need to see men perform a different kind of flexing.

Sarah Behenna

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Sarah Behenna is a former practising lawyer and freelance writer.

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