Women still harmed by stigma around flexible working, survey finds

Major barriers for civil servants ‘reflect broader issues affecting adoption of flexibility’

New research has found that more than a third of women in the civil service feel flexible working has had a negative impact on their career, as experts called for more to be done to tackle the stigma around the topic across all sectors.

The survey of 1,600 civil servants, by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, found a quarter (25 per cent) felt their superior viewed their flexible working as a negative, while 35 per cent said they needed to put in extra hours to show their commitment.

Of the respondents who felt flexible working was not encouraged at their grade, 20 per cent said they felt obliged to put in an additional 10 or more hours above their contracted hours each week.

The research was commissioned by the FDA union in response to the Cabinet Office’s 2016 pledge to become the most inclusive employer by 2020, and comes at a time where employers are being put under increasing pressure to provide flexible working opportunities.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said there was still a perceived stigma around flexible working that affected all sectors, and put the responsibility on senior management to become role models for flexibility. 

“There’s more progress that needs to be made to ensure senior leaders and line managers recognise the value of flexibility across the board,” he said. “We definitely need more senior-level role models working in different ways because ultimately that influences the culture of organisations. 

“Part-time working is quite often at a very junior level, and there are few progressive part-time jobs that allow people to work in senior roles.” 

Willmott said job sharing was just one example of how organisations could redesign jobs to enable more flexibility without undermining career progression, and called for “a greater provision of different types of flexible working”. 

The report highlighted that within the civil service, flexible working requests were least common among those at the most senior grades, and senior staff were also the least likely to report feeling encouraged to work flexibly.

Around 35 per cent of women who worked part time reported that their working pattern had hurt their career.

Karen Grave, president of the Public Services People Managers’ Association, said organisations that carried out flexible working well demonstrated “certain characteristics” in how they worked. “Managers and employees have clarity on what work needs to be delivered and how it will be measured – and the technology and other infrastructure enables this to happen,” she said.

However, Anna Ives, founder of independent consultancy HR Puzzle, said that while flexibility was achievable in the vast majority of roles, sometimes senior individuals needed to accept there would be an impact on career progression.

Victoria Jones, FDA women’s officer, said the workplace culture within the civil service did not always support staff working flexibly. “A workplace can’t truly embrace flexible working if the culture isn’t there to support it,” said Jones. “Our members don’t need to be chained to a desk to draft briefings but there’s still a misconception that if they’re not visible in the office, they can’t possibly be delivering.

“Secondly, if workloads aren’t adjusted then flexible working is destined to fail. Many of our members told us they were working part time, but picking up the remaining hours of a full-time role on their non-working days.” 

 The FDA called on employers across all sectors to tackle barriers to flexibility by beating the stigma and introducing flexible working evaluations to audit the hours worked.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Flexible working is widely offered and promoted across the whole civil service, with managers encouraged to offer different working patterns to staff to address individual needs. 

“We know that having a good work-life balance helps people achieve the best results at work, particularly while coping with home challenges such as caring for loved ones.”