Month: November 2018

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Flexibility shouldn’t be a stretch

‘I’d hate to think you’re using the Department as light entertainment’.

This sneering comment came from my manager as he knocked back my request for an additional four months leave-without-pay. I’d been back at work for a few months following the birth of my first child but due to personal circumstances, I needed some more time away from the office.

This incident was two decades ago when I worked for a government department as a young research scientist. Now, in 2018 when it comes to flexible working arrangements, I’d like to think things have changed somewhat since the 1990s.

That particular manager held the view that women working part-time in the workplace were a drain on resources and that I ‘obviously’ wasn’t committed to my scientific career if I wanted to access flexible work arrangements. He failed to understand that workplace flexibility actually delivers benefits all round; not just for employees but also the employer.

Bring on the Benefits

Earlier this year, a government report on Flexible work, good for business? quantified the significant benefits of flexible work strategies. The Nous Group was engaged by the Victorian Government to quantify the costs and benefits of more flexible work strategies. They reported that organisations can experience a net benefit of as much as 4% of their revenue as a result of flexible work conditions.

These benefits came from improvements in labour productivity, recruitment, retention and reduced absenteeism. The report noted that these benefits are significant and in some organisations:

can amount to tens of millions of dollars each year. Replicated across the entire economy, the net benefit could be in the billions. (Nous Group)

Equality enabler

You only have to look around your own office or ask a sample of your friends about conditions at their workplace to know that flexible work practices are a popular and valued part of many people’s employment conditions.

Strategies such as varied start and finish times, or flexible leave arrangements (like 48/52) can support employees with carer responsibilities as a result of children or elderly parents. It’s a vital way to help carers manage all the tasks they need to get done each day such as meeting medical appointments that inevitably fall within work hours.

Part-time work or time-in-lieu can help volunteers manage the juggle of paid work with their other responsibilities. Think of the parent-coach who is able to leave the office at 3 pm to help with after-school sports.

Working from home or job-sharing can also assist people recovering from ill health to transition back to employment or help senior staff adjust their hours as they move towards retirement.

Flexible work strategies not only make good economic sense, they advance equality in the workplace for everyone.

 

Talk or walk?

The positive news is that in 2018 more workplaces are implementing flexible working strategies. The latest national data found 70.7% of organisations reporting to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) have a formal flexibility policy and/or strategy in place.

The not-so-good news is that there is still a need for considerable progress in terms of genuine action to deliver workplace flexibility for all employees. Unfortunately many employers still just view the issue as ‘allowing part-time hours for mums’. This reinforces gender stereotypes and according to WGEA, results in men feeling judged when they seek to consider more flexibility in their working hours and then disengaging from the opportunities on offer.

If you have a flexible work strategy in place, it may be interesting for you to consider does your organisation’s action reflect their talk? WGEA reports that only about 1-in-4 organisations with flexible work strategies actually provide training for managers on flexible work and just 1-in-20 set targets for employee engagement in flexible work.

This ‘action gap’ is impeding progress and it’s probably costing your business money. (To find out how much check out the FlexiWork Calculator). The WGEA Manager Flexibility toolkit explains how to turn the talk into action.

Entertained AND committed

In the end, there was a happy outcome to my request for flexible leave.

As a new mother requesting a few extra months leave without pay, I eventually received approval following my appeal to the HR manager. Like many employees satisfied with flexible work conditions, I went onto to work for that organization as an engaged, committed (and entertained!) employee for another 15 years.

That sneering manager has long since retired, but the Department where I once worked (now called DEWLP) this year reported an annual saving of $31 million dollars as a result of their workplace flexibility programs. Thankfully many Department heads now value workplace flexibility because it’s not only the right thing to do for equality, but it also make good business sense.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for equality in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. www.ruthmcgowan.com

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

The myth of merit

Australians. We like to think we’re a nation of decent people, ready to give someone a fair go as long as they are prepared to ‘have a crack’. We also like to think we have good ‘bullshit radars’ meaning we are not afraid to call it out when someone is not being ‘fair dinkum’.

I’m having a go. It’s time to call out the term ‘merit’ as bullshit.

I’m fired up after attending the Equal Future forum this week, run by the Municipal Association of Victoria. Coincidentally, the same day the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) reported that the gender pay gap for women continues to sit at 79% of men’s salary.

Speaking at the MAV Forum, Catherine Fox, Walkley-Award winning author of  Stop Fixing Women spoke about the way ‘Merit’ is a term that unleashes our cognitive biases such as unconscious bias and affinity bias.

The Myth of Merit

This is what’s wrong with the notion of ‘Merit’. It might sound like an objective filter for sifting out those who deserve a promotion, reward, accolades. But, as Fox argues, it’s time we scrutinised the term and better understood how it is an insidious barrier to gender equality.

According to Fox, merit an elusive, subjective term that is really just ‘smoke and mirrors. The danger of this concept she says is that

merit is a self-reinforcing concept for those in charge (Fox)

When this happens, like-employs-like. The ‘mini-me’ in corporate Australia results in scenarios such as men apparently being ‘nine times more meritorious than females as CEOs in the ASX 200’. In other professions, such as Law, women make up to two-thirds of graduates yet fill only one-in-10 senior counsel and Queen’s counsel positions according to the Law Council of Australia.

We often hear that ‘he got it on merit’ whether it’s a job or an award. Fox says the perpetuation of this term is handy as ‘it doesn’t rock the boat … and perpetuates inertia’. In short, the term is an excuse used not to take action to address inequality.

If you still think the predominance of men in most spheres of leadership, corporate Australia, politics and holders of Australian Honours is as a result of merit, then what you are actually saying is that men are inherently more capable, deserving, skilled and talented than women in those same professions and industries. Really?

Personally, I don’t think so. Taking a small step to address inequality, last year I co-founded a movement Honour A Woman to address inequality in the Australian Honours where men consistently receive 70% of the awards. After 43 years on inequality in this area, we are finally making some progress.

The Gender Equality Paradox

Turns out that in addition to the Myth of Merit, there is also the Gender Equality Paradox.

Remember last time you heard someone rave about how great their organisation is at gender equality? Turns out that when the evidence is analysed, they’re probably not.

For example, your organisations may have employed a Gender Equality Officer. So far so good. But look closer. Is the position well resourced or is it merely a box-ticking exercise? She (and it nearly always is a woman) may not have much of a budget and probably works flexible hours with limited resources and lack of management support. (She’s probably also expected to organise the International Women’s Day breakfast and other tokenistic tasks such as sourcing a few ‘ethnic-looking’ stock photos for the annual report).

The irony is that while employers may think they deserve praise for their Gender Equality Plan the reality is there is rarely an associated action plan that makes management accountable for delivery.

There’s a level of complacency that ‘the job’s sorted’ which leads to an action gap between the rhetoric and the behaviour. That is the paradox.

This Action Gap has been highlighted by WGEA as a serious issue in Australian workplaces. In November 2018 they reported that more than half of employers (58.4%) don’t even bother to scrutinise the basic data (such as pay data) for gender pay gaps. And of the 70% of employers who say they have a policy or strategy to support gender equality, most of them didn’t back the plans up with action. For instance, only 30% of employers with plans, made managers accountable for delivery with relevant KPIs. And of those employers that had conducted a pay gap analysis, only around 18% actually reported the results upwards to their Board for action. Even when gaps were identified, only a bit over a half of employers took any action to address the gaps identified (58%).

It’s a lot of talk without real action and its time it was challenged.

We’ve stalled

Here in Australia, WGEA reports women still face considerable barriers in the workplace and that ‘we still have a long way to go’. After five years of data, the trends show ‘virtually no movement in gender segregation across Australian industries and little improvement in either access to paid parental leave or the representation of women at CEO level or on boards.

This comes on top of the 2017 WEF Global Gender Gap Report estimates that it will be another 217 years before we achieve gender parity. ARGHHHH!

Anyone else yelling with me? Or are you still asking, ‘Why does it matter’? If you need to ask why it is worth getting cross about this lack of action, I suggest you check out WGEA’s updated guide on the business case for gender equality that demonstrates the benefits to people, workforces and our country. Equality is not only the right thing to pursue, but it also makes good economic sense.

Next time you hear someone from HR boasting about their ‘fantastic Gender Equality program’ dig deeper. Ask about the data they collect that demonstrates if it’s actually making any difference.

If you are interested in practical actions you can take to address the insidious barrier of merit, check out Avoiding the merit trap, a report by Chief Executive Women and Male Champions of Change.

And while we are at it, let’s ban the word MERIT, which Catherine Fox jokingly said stands for

M.E.R.I.T = Mates Elevated Regardless of Intellect or Talent

Let’s talk about suitability, capability and potential for exceptional performance. Let’s challenge the paradoxes and myths and reap the benefits of a fair and equitable workplace for women, men and our country. It’s time for the talk to reflect the walk and everyone to be given a fair go.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. 

Top