Archive | November, 2014

Macbeth and the art of flexible working

26 Nov

Recently I went to a Parents’ Evening where I learnt (among other things) that my child is soon to read Macbeth. Macbeth’s fatal flaw is ‘vaulting ambition’ which leads him to make some very bad – and bloody – decisions on his way to the top of the tree. (When he gets there he finds the whole wood is moving – a scenario probably familiar to some real-life Chief Executives – but they often get to manage the consequences in less doom-laden ways …)

So Macbeth has something to say about career progression and work-life balance: it can be seen as the ultimate cautionary tale of the costs of getting to the top – it has plenty to say about the influence of spouses, for sure. And it has some great language to lend to corporate malaise: ever felt ‘cabined, cribbed confined’ in the office 9-5? This is the play for you.

I blogged before about the way in which flexible working could operate differently for men and women, with men informally meeting family commitments ‘irregularly regularly’, whilst women often negotiate upfront for the conditions they need to make both work and care practical. Indeed, I was able to go to that Parents’ Evening because husband had ‘left a bit early’ to take care of our other child.

There is evidence that part-time work still raises issues for ambitious people – and that gender still features in this equation. Some retain a view that anything less than full-time hours signals lack of commitment; and those who reduce their hours may fear that this might hamper promotion prospects. These factors seem to have figured in a recent discrimination case where a man successfully argued that a rejection of request to go part-time amounted to discrimination, as women had been granted this option.  Flexible arrangements should be available to both men and women, without ruling out the possibility of advancement. Otherwise we will remain in a situation on workplace inequality, where, to quote Macbeth again, ‘we have scotched the snake not killed it’.

The formal aspects of flexibility do matter – employees must be seen to work flexibly in order for it to satisfy both career ambition and life satisfaction. I’ve talked about Macbeth all through this blog – only the superstitious would keep referring to it as ‘the Scottish play’. Keeping flexible working hidden under informal terms would be a proper tragedy.

 

 

 

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Is flexible working the new premarital sex?

15 Nov

Flexible working – is everyone at it but just not talking about it? A new survey from the USA suggests that men as well as women are taking up opportunities to work more flexibly and so accommodate family life. However, a key finding is that informal arrangements work best for men. Only 29% have a formal arrangement that fixes weekly working patterns. Rather than drawing up an explicit contract with their employers, many men get by on being ‘regularly irregular’ with a nod and a wink from a sympathetic boss. So they may not make announcements about their working hours, just go early – perhaps leaving their coat on the back of the chair, lest anyone should suspect them of skiving. Or they phone in to work from home, or make up time in the evenings.

In some ways this is progress – the more involved father finding a way to make balance work when they have a spouse who is probably working too. But women who work flexibly have tended to do it by the book – to set clear ground rules on accepting a job, or to make a formal request to have flexible hours considered. After all, where kids are concerned the buck is seen to stop with her. Indeed, it’s recently been reported here in the UK, that women who make requests for flexible working are more likely to have their request granted than men.

Why is there this difference in the strategies of men and women, and why does it remind me of premarital sex? It’s because of the gendered assumptions about suitable behaviour that underlie both. The informal arrangements at work maintain a man’s reputation as a serious careerist, just as leaving before morning might maintain a nice girl’s social standing when respectable women could not be seen publicly to be engaging in sex before marriage. As long as flexibly working men do nothing so reckless as to go part-time, their place in the rat race is safe: flexibility may be invisible in order for men to have it in senior roles. Similarly, back in the day, as long as separate sleeping arrangements were seen to be made, and no pregnancy occurred, an unmarried woman could have sex below the radar with her reputation intact.

What is wrong with this picture? It’s the idea that flexibly working men and sexually active women each have had to erect a façade of respectability in order to do what they want to do. And of course it’s no coincidence that the system turns a blind eye to men’s behaviour while making women jump through hoops. Whilst everyone tacitly accepted men’s sexual behaviour, women’s behaviour was heavily regulated; now men can operate a ‘blind eye’ solution to work flexibility whilst women have had to campaign for formal regulations to enable flexible working and prevent exploitation – such as unequal treatment on the basis of job description and/or hours. The acceptability of premarital sex was aided by the innovation of reliable contraception, and the acceptability of flexible working has been aided by the advent of personal computing, e-mail and the internet. You no longer need to be at work to do many kinds of work; you can now have sex and avoid pregnancy.

But as with sexual mores, so in the workplace: the gender behaving ‘out-of-character’ – the sexually active independent woman, the family-oriented career man – has to find arrangements to keep up appearances. Do what you have to, but don’t shout about it. Because if you did, let’s face it, everything would have to change …. And where would that lead?

 

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