Working mums fear ‘fake’ flexibility as two fifths complete work tasks out of hours, study finds

Data also shows two thirds believe there are fewer career opportunities for them after maternity leave

Dragana991/Getty Images

Two fifths (40 per cent) of mothers in employment report needing to complete work tasks outside of normal hours, creating concerns that offers of flexibility for mums can be ‘fake’, a study has found.

The survey of 2,152 working mums with children under the age of 18, conducted by Careering into Motherhood, found that despite the vast majority (92 per cent) of working mothers saying that their employer is fully or partially receptive to flexible working requests, there are still reports of managers expecting full-time work to be completed within reduced hours, as well as negative responses to the requests.

Notwithstanding that employees have the legal right to request flexible work, almost four in 10 working mums (38 per cent) had not asked for any flexible work, with 46 per cent believing that asking for flexibility impacts future promotion opportunities.

Mothers, older workers and disabled talent are key to getting the UK working, think tank says

How can employers prevent the outpouring of female talent?

Childcare commitments drive flexibility need for half of working parents, report shows

Sarah Jackson OBE, visiting professor at Cranfield School of Management, said this is evident of discrimination towards women in professional jobs, shows the need for better workload management and work design, and highlights issues with work-life balance and pay.

“Working mothers are being offered more flexible terms as a kind of sop: so you’ve decided to go away and have a kid? Well, when you come back you’re going to have to bend yourself around what we need,” said Jackson.

Jemima Olchawski, chief executive at the Fawcett Society, said that offering flexible work options as a universal day-one right, alongside supportive and wellbeing-centric cultures, would go some way towards ensuring that any flexibility offered to working mums doesn’t negatively impact their pay or career opportunities.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

“We know that flexible work is a lifeline for many women, particularly mothers – and it's good for our economy, too,” she said.

“However, employers must ensure that flexible options don't disadvantage women and place unreasonable demands on them – for example, expecting five days' worth of work to be done despite an employee working, and being paid for, part-time hours, or having their career options limited because they work flexibly.

As it stands, three quarters (76 per cent) of working mums believe their career has been impacted more than their co-parent's career, after having a child, with less than half (46 per cent) thinking it had hurt their co-parent’s career at all. 

Two thirds (65 per cent) felt there had been fewer career opportunities for them since maternity leave.

Coupled with worries regarding ‘fake flexibility, recent TUC analysis shows women work, on average, two months of the year for free compared to men.

Sheryl Miller, founder of workplace consultancy Reboot Global, said better policy creation and managerial understanding around motherhood and flexibility is needed, as well as an evaluation of whether specific roles can be flexible, to ensure working mothers don’t lose out on pay or opportunities. 

Businesses need to be more ruthless with time, accept the boundaries of working mums and get better at collaboration, as well as understand that gendered approaches to parenthood can negatively impact mothers, she added.

“Consider if you're gendering parental leave [in policies and communications] as this can impact on allowing everyone time off for parenting. Women would feel less reluctant to ‘own’ their motherhood if parenthood was accepted as a normal part of working life for men, rather than simply a burdensome inconvenience for women,” Miller advised.

With economic inactivity among working-age adults rising since the start of the pandemic and think tank calls to support more working mothers back into work, Claire McCartney, senior recruitment adviser at the CIPD, added that businesses also need to consider how flexibility and inclusive practices can benefit their agenda.

“At a time where many employers are still facing challenging skills shortages it makes no sense to be missing out on this considerable talent pool…advertise roles as open to flexible working wherever possible and create cultures and benefits that support employees at different life stages,” she said.

Earlier this week, People Management reported that almost every company (92 per cent) that took part in the world's biggest four-day week trial has decided to continue with the reduced working hours model after “incredible” UK pilot results.

Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said innovative flexible working patterns such as a four-day week “could be a valuable option to improve work-life balance and retain and attract people”.