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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One Response to “Is flexible working the new premarital sex?”

  1. Sceptical Mum November 17, 2014 at 3:01 PM #

    Interesting post. My job leaves very little room for flexibility anyway, but we’re lucky that on days I have to work late or our son is sick my husband’s work are generally ok with him leaving early or working from home with little/no notice. His boss has the (very sensible) policy of ‘so long as the work gets done, it doesn’t matter how or where’. I have never thought about whether this relates to his gender. However, we did both consider going 4 days a week after maternity leave, but both rejected it as we felt we wouldn’t be taken as seriously and therefore wouldn’t progress in our careers.

    Definitely food for thought.

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