Why “the stigma of flexibility” makes women stop
The Covid-19 work-from-home revolution has led to greater flexibility for some. However, for millions more, the longer hours, always available emails, and constantly juggling roles at home and at work made them stressed, depressed and desperate. Sometimes it’s hard to decide if you are working from home or sleeping in the office.
Last week a white collar union suggested a solution. Prospect, whose members include UK executives, civil servants, engineers and scientists, called on the UK government to ban emails outside of bosses’ working hours. The union wants a legally binding âright to disconnectâ.
This was the law in France since 2017. Policies include blocking computer servers during evenings and weekends, signature e-mail messages notifying the recipient that they do not have to respond immediately, and encouragement to report abusive situations.
Home workers worked longer and more irregular hours during the pandemic. Studies show that the journey time saved turns into an average of six hours of unpaid overtime every week. Experiments with heart rate monitors show anxiety levels highest peak when reading professional emails that invade personal time. Even the wait for need to check work emails after hours is linked to chronic stress. This lack of personal freedom is strongly linked to depression and early death.
Virtual technology-based work may look less like a freedom than a digital bondage. This trend has affected most workers, but it has unfairly disadvantaged one group in particular: working mothers. The coronavirus has intensified an existing phenomenon of ‘double shifts’: a hectic day of work, followed by hours spent looking after children, home schooling or catching up with household chores. In the United States, nearly 3 million American women have left the workforce over the past year. According to Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn organization, women “burn out and burn out.” McKinsey & Company reports that more than one in four women are considering downgrading their career or leaving the workforce entirely.
In a post-pandemic world, global organizations will need to develop male and female leaders who can bring about transformational change. The pandemic could put in place gender diversity plans years back, which means fewer women in leadership positions now; and far fewer women on the way to becoming the leaders of tomorrow.
The hidden obstacle
In addition to the mental stress of remote working, the pandemic has exacerbated a hidden cultural problem for aspiring leaders. What researchers have called âthe stigma of flexibilityâ means that even when adaptable work options are available, there is a hidden shame in using them.
This insidious dynamic begins with a shared perception. A study of more than 6,500 Harvard Business School alumni, from virtually every industry, found that more than three-quarters of the two men and women attributed the secure advancement of women to one reason: they prioritize family over work.
This belief has led to a stampede of organizations trying to level the playing field for working mothers. Accommodation options include part-time jobs, flexible hours, time off and sabbaticals. The objective is to retain and promote women to managerial positions. In addition to the moral imperative around equality, boards of directors have noted that earnings and performance of stocks can be almost 50% higher when women are well represented at the top.
It is paradoxical that in trying to remove one barrier, companies reveal another. This obstacle is all the more difficult to overcome since it is never publicly recognized. It may be officially invisible, but female employees are all too aware that balancing their family and work responsibilities risks their careers failing.
Studies show that personal costs are very real: they negatively affect salaries, performance scores and chances of promotion. An exhausted female executive says: âMy boss seems to deliberately leave a gray area around me when I need to be available. This means I’m never sure, when I’m juggling work and home, when I’ll be in dire need. Inevitably, the balls fall.
Permanent work stress started before Covid-19. However, the rise of Zoom and his close cousins ââhas escalated the situation. In this toxic context, male and female leaders are struggling to cope with the insane valuation of endless work. However, the problem is more difficult for working mothers as they are much more likely to have to avail themselves of flexible work policies. When they do, as one researcher puts it, they risk falling “into social disgrace”. For example, in a law firm, flexible workers were seen as âtime deviantsâ. They had broken the rule which is “at the heart of what it means to be a true professional”.
We’ll see if the UK government is following other European countries to pass a right to disconnect law later this year. My experience of working with American colleagues is that it would be much more difficult to enact this law in America. President Joe Biden has led the most pro-Labor US administration in decades, but so far he has been silent on this particular issue. This reluctance may be due to the fact that a bill on the right to disconnect proposed in New York in 2018 was crushed by business leaders who dismissed it as unnecessary and expensive.
Whatever governments try to do from here, smart businesses need to eliminate the double-thinking around flexible working. The first step is to assure all employees that their performance will be measured by results, not when, where or how many hours they work. This means carefully considering when meetings take place and reaching agreement on which emails, if any, need to be answered outside of regular business hours.
Strategic Change Consultant Dr Jacqui Rigby said: âBusinesses need to think of little things that make a big difference. I know of a large organization that bought âno zoomâ Friday afternoons, for example. My favorite is to set the default online meeting times to 45 minutes rather than one hour. This gives you time to download, put in the laundry if you’re at home, and recharge for the next meeting.
Building a fortification between work and home has to start somewhere. As with so many cultural changes, business leaders must lay the foundation stone. To begin with, they must offer both explicit and implicit permission to occasionally log off outside of working hours. The best way for them to do this is to model flexibility in their own working life.