• Flexible work arrangements are key to promoting gender diversity. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Flexible working arrangements are cited as the most important prerequisite to fostering gender diversity. So why are flexible roles accessible in theory, but elusive in practice?
By
Elana Benjamin

27 Jun 2018 - 7:56 AM  UPDATED 20 Nov 2018 - 2:24 PM

I should feel grateful:  I have an incredibly flexible job. I only go into the office once a week, on Tuesdays. Otherwise, I work remotely, in the comfort of my favourite yoga pants. I manage to squeeze in a walk or a swim most afternoons, and I’m around for school drop off and pick up. Sounds good, especially for a mother of two, right?  But lately, I’m filled more with frustration than gratitude. 

I’ve been in my current role, as a business writer, for over two years. I’m eager for a new challenge. The problem is, I can’t find another part-time position; like a millennial ready to move out of home but stuck because the property market’s so overpriced. 

The cheerleaders of corporate Australia whoop and holler: “We’ve put flexible working at the top of our to-do list! Our company supports a diverse and inclusive workforce! We’re committed to making sure our employees can bring their best selves to work!” But there’s a huge disconnect between the rah-rah of the rhetoric, and the way the game plays out in ‘talent acquisition’ departments around the country.

There’s a huge disconnect between the rah-rah of the rhetoric, and the way the game plays out in ‘talent acquisition’ departments around the country.

I should know: I’ve been hunting for flexible work, up to three days a week in the office, for months. Not a single position’s materialised, despite my double degree and years of experience.

Recruiters all tell me the same story. “We don’t get many part-time roles; maybe two or three a year. Your best bet is to use your contacts.” But I’ve been checking in with my contacts regularly. They don’t have any leads. 

My ‘Top Job Picks’, auto-selected and delivered regularly to my inbox, courtesy of LinkedIn? They’re almost all five days a week, too.

More than four years ago, I left the insurance business – where I’d built my career – because the most flexible job I could get at my skill level was four days a week in the office. With no remote access. At the time, I was sure this was a reflection of an industry known for its conservative attitudes. But now that I’ve moved into a different field, I’ve realised the problem isn’t insurance-specific.

My husband, a manager in the manufacturing industry, recently spoke to a recruiter about the possibility of securing a four-day-a-week role. “I’ve had lots of women enquire about part-time work, but there just aren’t any jobs for them,” the recruiter admitted. “The only way to do it is to start off full-time, build credibility and then drop back your hours.”

Yet research by the Boston Consulting Group released in May 2017 found that “overwhelmingly, employees identified flexible working arrangements as the most important prerequisite to fostering gender diversity.”  And it’s no secret that diversity is good for business. So why are flexible roles accessible in theory, but elusive in practice?

Let’s face it.  Full-time workers (preferably white and male) are still the ideal, like the classic family made up of a mum, dad and two kids.  But just like loving families, valuable employees come in different colours and sizes, with varying cultural backgrounds and commitments.

As that same Boston Consulting Group report concluded, “despite increasingly supportive policies, many employees are reluctant to break the [full-time] mould for fear of being seen as uncommitted, and many teams are not equipped to rethink working models.”

Let’s face it.  Full-time workers (preferably white and male) are still the ideal, like the classic family made up of a mum, dad and two kids.  But just like loving families, valuable employees come in different colours and sizes, with varying cultural backgrounds and commitments.

So, is there a solution?

“Social change is slow,” my husband says gently, when I express my frustration. “It just takes time.” 

“I don’t have time!” I reply. “I’m already 43!”

But then I think of the suffragettes, and the civil rights activists, and same-sex marriage in this country. And I realise that infuriating as it is, I have no choice but to wait for corporate Australia to truly embrace flexible work practices. I will not, however, wait silently.

Writing gives me a voice, to say what I – and others like me – cannot say to the robots that power LinkedIn, or to the recruiters who saccharinely suggest that we get back in touch with them “when our availability increases.”

Human resource professionals, hiring managers and decision makers across corporate Australia, I hope you are listening. Because, those of us looking for new challenges are not useless if we cannot be in the office from Monday to Friday. “Working from home” need not be uttered in air quotes, smirking, as if it’s a bludge day instead of one away from the incessant interruptions of the office. And the desire – or need – to work flexibly does not equate to lack of talent.

I’m very lucky that the organisation I work for recognises this. And with my manager planning a new project for me, I’ve decided to stay in my current job.

I only wish that other businesses would match their corporate speak to their hiring practices, so that all of us who work flexibly have opportunities to grow and progress.

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