Flexible working for women: Status fear is driving them to extremes

Forget men behaving badly. It’s now women working flexibly that are prompting the hottest debates in today’s workplace.

We ran an opinion piece a few weeks ago (Personnel Today, 13 March) from someone (a woman who runs her own business) who believes that women with young children are not as conscientious or as productive as full-time, childless employees. At the end of the day, she said, clients only care about service delivered, not how it was achieved or how many hours you had to work.

You can imagine how the floodgates opened, with hordes of hard-working mums writing to us to proclaim just how much they manage to cram into their three- or four-day working weeks.

This is a subject that easily puts working mothers – and often their employers – on the defensive. Even with the new flexible working rights outlined in the Work and Families Act, there is still no simple way to help high-flying women achieve their desired work-life balance. Given the predominantly female bias of the profession, this is undoubtedly a dilemma that all HR practitioners are trying to resolve.

We examine this ‘mother of all problems’ in our lead feature this week.

High-achieving women often feel paranoid about what will happen to their job and status while they’re off on maternity leave, and so they dash back to the office almost as soon as the baby is born. Some just don’t bother to come back at all – the so-called ‘baby drain’. Yet it can cost up to three times their salary to replace them, once you’ve totted up the search fees and management time. And many women check out your diversity credentials before they’ll even consider applying for a job with you.

So what do you do? Offer a full year’s maternity pay? Provide coaching for maternity returners? Assess employees on job done rather than hours worked? If something works for your organisation, we’d love to hear about it (e-mail me at karen.dempsey@rbi.co.uk).


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