Flexibility in the Workplace Begins At Home

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The division of paid and unpaid work

The average amount of unpaid work done by women is 311 minutes/day.  The average amount of unpaid work done by men is 172 minutes/day.  These numbers were reported by the OECD in 2014.  This could be one of the main reasons why more men than women work full-time. But there are other factors involved. On average women are paid 23.1% less than men, which equates to $27,000 total remuneration annually less than their male counterparts.

Jane Gilmore in the SMH recently stated “Women are never going to be able to access an equal level of professional opportunity until men take on equal responsibility for unpaid work.”  It’s an obvious statement but it deserves to be said.  Put another way, men are unlikely to access flexibility in the workplace until they acknowledge an equal responsibility for unpaid work.  Until this time there is no burning motivation for men to access flexible work options because they know that their partner will take on the responsibility for unpaid work or they are completely unaware of how their partner feels about the arrangement they have.  If we don’t come to this issue in true partnership and as collaborators there will be little or no change to the status quo.

How does unpaid work affect paid work?

If men did more or equal the amount of unpaid work as women, what might it mean for them at work?  They would have to leave work at a set time each day, no matter what happened, to pick up their child or children. They might be the ones to stay at home when their children are sick and possibly be judged as unreliable at work.  They might be the ones to get up at night when their child is calling out and comfort them resulting in tiredness the next day at work.  They might be the ones that have to drop their kids at day care or school in the morning and possibly arrive at work later than their colleagues. They might be the ones that think about dinner, shop for it and cook it, which takes time and mental energy that they would normally spend at work.  They might be the ones that make the kid’s lunches for school, which takes more time and mental energy. They might be the person that buys the Christmas presents for the family to forgo time to catch up with their friends on the weekend or get their haircut.For some families it is one parent doing the majority of the unpaid work as their partner is striving to have a successful career and the home and partnership works really well.

More often, as the statistics show, it is the woman who forgoes full-time work because she is taking on a majority of the family responsibilities.  But how many are happy with this? And what of the women who work full time, and have children? Have they worked out with their partners a more equitable division of the unpaid labour needed to keep their family and home running?  Yes, some have – hooray!  However the majority have not.  It is still them that do the additional unpaid work that was expected of their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, who, it’s unlikely, put in 40+ hours a week in the workplace.  How do I know?  The working mums that we coach tell us this all the time.  As a direct result resentment towards their partner or children may ensue.  They may also experience feelings of stress and anxiety triggered by the unrelenting ‘to-do-list’ at home and at work.  These are common and almost inevitable feelings for a partner that works and does the bulk of the home care.

The image below was prepared by Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) in their recent report on the comparison of Australian unpaid care work and the labour market.  The table provides a startling visual on how paid and unpaid care work is divided between men and women.

Men and women need to challenge what is seen as the ‘normal’ division of unpaid work

Don’t get me wrong this is not about telling men off or taking the high and mighty road.  It’s about questioning what we all see as ‘normal’.  There is no reason that the majority of unpaid work needs to be done by women.  It might have been this way 70 years ago when women had to give up their job if they became pregnant or were married but it certainly isn’t the case now.  Now we need to question generations of gender roles and ask why is it that the woman does most of the unpaid labour for the family?  Men are just as capable as women in the home as are women just as capable as men in the workplace.  Why do we think it’s admirable when we see a Dad looking after his children but a Mum looking after her children is normal?  If a Dad looks after the children by himself for a few days why do we think that he will need help, but when a Mum looks after children by herself she will be fine?  There is a huge double standard at play in our society that we need to actively address.  There is no reason that unpaid labour – necessary to keep a household working – can’t be done equally by men and women.

A dad’s perspective

There has been a lot of talk in the Parents At Work office lately about the challenges of being a working Dad.  I recently attended a panel discussion where working Dads shared their personal experiences.  To summarise, what I have personally heard from working Dads was that they feel a huge amount of guilt.  The guilt comes from not being able to give their partner what they need at home in terms of physical or emotional support.  It also comes from feeling that they are letting their boss or team members down when they go home to care for their children or partners.  Many working Dads feel an overwhelming pressure to provide financially for their families so consequently put their all into their work.  They have very little physical or emotional energy left at the end of the day or week to give their children, let alone their partners. Our society has long placed many expectations on men to provide financial support for the family.  However, just because that is the historical norm does not mean we should we continue it.  Both men and women need to challenge this commonplace expectation of men financially providing for their families.

Changing the division of unpaid work

To use the concepts of Sheryl Sanderberg and Annabelle Crab, men need to ‘lean out’ of the boardroom table and ‘lean in’ to the kitchen table.  They need to pick up more of the unpaid work that is necessary to support a family.  When they do this, they will need to ask for more flexibility in the workplace.  Men will “…need to start talking to their employers about going part time; and they need to start preparing for sideways moves and pauses in their careers, as women do. They need to expect that work is not going to be a consistent upwards trajectory after they’ve had children, and plan accordingly. And they need to extend these same assumptions to other men in their workplaces, until it becomes the norm rather than the exception.”  Jane Gilmore, Sydney Morning Herald.

What will change?

Women will have more opportunities at work because they will have more support at home and more time for paid work.  Men will have more time enjoying their family and will combat that guilt and burden they’ve been carrying. Women may start to feel more confident and empowered in the workplace.  Employers may value a woman’s contribution more and provide equal pay for equal work.

When both men and women work flexibly it will start to become the new normal. Working fewer hours will not mean an employee is less reliable or committed than their full-time colleagues.  It will simply be understood that at this time in the man or woman’s life they will need more time, emotional and physical energy to care for their families. More transparency and acceptance of flexibility in the workplace will also open up opportunities for non-carers to focus more on their health and wellbeing needs. A healthy employee means a productive workplace and equals better business outcomes. It’s a win-win for all and we need to keep this bigger picture in mind when we are negotiating flexibility in the office or working with our partners to create a better home care set up.

Equality in unpaid work will require more flexibility in the workplace

To have equality in the division of labour at home would be a wonderful outcome for both men and women. The current 64% split to women and the 36% split to men of unpaid work is far from equitable in the case of many families.  For some, this arrangement works well however we hear from many mums and dads that this is not working for them. At the end of the day what is needed is a commitment from both parents to understanding what they can contribute at home and at work – with their partners wants and needs in mind. Working together to clarify and set workable arrangements up will provide the motivation to ask for flexibility in the workplace. Employers are much more open to someone who has a solid understanding of what it is they need to be the most productive, guilt-free, happy employee. This is why, ultimately, flexibility in the workplace begins at home.

By Celeste Kirby-Brown

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