Manpower: More businesses are finding that the key to equality and attracting the best talent is to adopt a more flexible approach to work
There were days, admits Alan Thornburrow, when he was stretched very thin.
He’d be juggling work and children, squashing a job between the school run and making dinner, popping to the office for a meeting and getting home in time to make after-school snacks.
“It could be stressful and sometimes I was pretty frazzled,” he admits. “But I had time to spend with my children that I would not otherwise have had.
“And I think I’m closer to them because of that.”
Father-of-four Thornburrow took what, for many men working in Scotland, was the unusual step of trading typical working hours for a more flexible largely home-based approach after his wife fell ill.
As she recovered, Thornburrow grappled with work and childcare thanks to an understanding employer who gave him the nod to carry on. As long as the work was done it didn’t matter where or how he did it.
That was around a decade ago and a different job, yet according to research carried out by the organisation he now leads in Scotland, Business in the Community, such a flexible arrangement is still, even in these apparently enlightened days, quite a rarity for a man.
“I was very much in the minority for a man in what’s seen as a female role,” he says. “To take this step back from doing what everyone else does, was challenging in some respects.
“You feel you’re going against the tide. There was anxiety and guilt that goes with being outwith the accepted norm.
“There’s a general presenteeism culture that’s alive and well, and working long hours feels like a badge of honour.
“Fast forward a decade and it’s a bit better,” he concedes, “but it was really quite alien at the time.”
Today he is Scotland Director of BITC, a membership organisation which works hand-in-hand with business to build a better society and more sustainable future.
Its recent Equal Lives report in partnership with Santander UK, which was published earlier this month (SEPT), delved into an issue that has proved difficult to solve: the battle for workplace gender equality and, in particular, how different attitudes to career and care responsibilities between the sexes may impact on women’s careers, and men’s ability to take on a greater share of care responsibilities at home, or achieve a better work and life balance.
The Scottish findings were particularly interesting. For while almost half (49 per cent) of men believe their work affects their partners’ careers, only 40 per cent of men with caring responsibilities – such as for children or aging relatives – feel they have the right balance between care and work.
A key finding was the apparent disconnect between how well line managers believe they are addressing flexible working (93 per cent think they are encouraging) and the reality experienced by employees.
Only 38 per cent of people with caring responsibilities feel they have the right balance between care and work.
There are certainly big issues in need of solving. Gender equality across the EU as a whole was found to have progressed little between 2005 and 2015 according to the Gender Equality Index 2017.
Published last autumn by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), it warned that today’s young women are unlikely to see any real workplace equality until they hit retirement age.
In Thornburrow’s case, taking a gentle step away from the office to work in a more flexible fashion – although related to his wife’s ill health at the time – gave him precious time to be a dad.
“I was able to take part in the Parent Council at school, even run the school disco. I enjoyed being there and being involved.
“It needs to be okay for men to feel they can take child and parental leave and enjoy time with their children and not give up their career.”
According to Chloe Chambraud, BITC’s Gender Equality Director, a more equal gender balance at work can only really be achieved if there’s equality in the home.
“For a long time there has been focus on women at work, but it’s completely disregarded that often women can’t progress because they have unpaid work to do at home.
“You need equality at home in order to have it in the workplace.”
That’s not a dig at men – she says they are increasingly keen to take on what they agree is their fair share of caring responsibilities.
“Men want to be available to care more at home, but they can’t because the workplace hasn’t kept pace with changes in attitude and is still in some ways is quite outdated,” adds Chambraud.
In particular, BITC’s research revealed a glaring gap in training for line managers in how they can support employees with a care responsibility, and workers’ impression of what is available to them.
And yet it’s in employers’ best interests to figure out how it can create a workplace that helps staff meet their commitments at home or just achieve a better balance.
“Being better at supporting men who want to take on caring responsibilities tends to result in them feeling more wanted and, in turn, they become more loyal,” says Chambraud.
“In terms of attracting and maintaining talent, it’s key. At some point we will all have caring responsibilities, especially since a lot more people are staying in work for longer.
“One in four adults will experience ‘sandwich’ care at some point – where they are looking after children and elderly relatives at the same time,” she adds, referring to the Family Resources Survey, published by the Office of National Statistics and Department for Work and Pensions in 2017.
“It’s very important to make sure all employees are supported.”
Lawyer and chartered tax adviser Caroline Colliston, a director at legal business DWF, sees first-hand the gender imbalance in her own profession.
While six out of every 10 solicitors are female, senior positions within the legal profession remain predominantely white, middle-aged men.
“The profession means we have to be available to clients outside normal hours,” she points out.
“There are set targets in large national and international firms, while the partnership model is not that flexible.
“I see it happening as soon as people get married. You watch a woman make a decision about her career based on what she perceives her family circumstances will facilitate.
“We have to stop stereotyping women as the ones who provide all the care, and businesses need to adapt.”
It can be done, she adds. Her own firm has a London office where staff work in an agile manner, and her role is flexible.
However, she fears that without brutally honest conversations about how we work, plus compassion and kindness towards people who are pulled in a range of directions while still trying to maintain a career, little will change.
“We have to accept that you don’t have to be working at 110 per cent all of the time,” she says.
“It’s a mindset, not just from predominantly male leaders but also among ourselves.”
Changing general presumptions that the woman in a relationship is also the carer is a starting point, she adds.
“For example, schools have to stop automatically calling mums when a child is ill,” she adds.
Chambraud says there’s much that companies can do to encourage family-friendly policies – from enhanced paternity leave to just avoiding falling into the old stereotypical traps.
“Men want flexible working, and when we look at employee costs, it can cost £30,000 to replace someone [according to the Cost of Brain Drain, published by Oxford Economics in 2014] – better to invest in improved ways of working.
“Just as women should be able to progress in the workplace, men should not be held back from taking up their caring responsibilities.”
Equal Lives is the largest UK survey on men’s attitudes to work and care responsibilities.
Only 38 per cent of people in Scotland with caring responsibilities feel they have the balance between work and care right.
Most Scots (88 per cent) agree that men should be involved in all elements of child care as women – just above the national average of 86 per cent.
While 83 per cent of people in Scotland say being able to work flexibly is important to them only 71 per cent said it is available.
Nearly half of men (49 per cent) in Scotland believe their work affects their partners’ careers. The figure compares to just 19 per cent of women.
Only 32 per cent of line managers in Scotland have received training or advice on how to better support employees who need to balance work with care responsibilities.
Finding your balance with responsibilities
Santander UK has adopted an innovative approach to supporting employees as they balance work with childcare responsibilities.
Its Becoming a Parent toolkit provides practical support, gives guidance to the line manager and signposts employees to the Parents and Carers network, in order to ensure everyone receives the support they need.
To develop it, Santander UK used its employee-led networks to engage families and individuals who had chosen to adopt or foster, or had gone through IVF, pregnancy, maternity and paternity; ensuring they represented a true diversity of perspectives from their employees.
Nathan Bostock, chief executive, Santander UK, says getting the right balance for work and family is mutually beneficial.
“Social attitudes to family and caring have changed substantially in recent years but it’s clear that many feel that their workplace hasn’t kept pace.
“No one should feel forced to choose between being a great parent or carer and having a great career.
“Businesses that want to attract and retain the best talent need to look carefully at how they can support all their employees to balance work and family life in a way that works for them and the business alike.”
He adds: “Employers need to get it right because everyone stands to benefit - employees will have more fulfilled lives outside of work and businesses will have employees who are more engaged, loyal and productive.
“As a starting point, it’s vital that we encourage more open conversations about balancing work and care, ensuring role models are visible and line-managers are equipped to provide the right support.”
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