This article appeared in TODAY on March 29, 2016.
March is the month to celebrate and discuss women, as organisations centre their events around International Women’s Day. It is always heartening to see companies invested in balancing gender in their workforce and leadership.
Companies that are committed to maintaining and attracting female talent know there is a strong business case for doing so. A company is only as good as its people, and the female talent pool is too rich to miss out on. Furthermore, high turnover rates indicate a waste of investment in recruiting, training and mentoring women.
Many companies and countries have implemented policies to support women’s leadership.
Things that work well include setting targets on women in leadership roles, designing systematic plans to achieve these targets and commitment from senior management.
Firms can also benefit from training that makes staff aware of biases (including unconscious biases) that may limit women’s achievement, together with practices to reduce these unconscious biases.
Nevertheless, progress remains slow. The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2015 estimates that it will be 118 years before the global gender pay gap closes — putting us four generations away from parity. In 2014, the prediction was 81 years.
What still stands in the way of women’s potential to earn as much as and climb the career ladder like their male counterparts? A key issue, often overlooked, is care.
Even today, women are expected to be the primary caregivers for children. Many leave paid employment to fulfil this role because their workplaces do not make space for caregiving needs. For gender parity to become a reality, companies need to recognise that every worker has caregiving responsibilities, and that these responsibilities — quite rightly — affect men as much as women.
CATERING TO A WORKFORCE OF CAREGIVERS
Women face great cultural pressure to be primary caregivers, and often they are. However, this is changing. In a 2014 Harvard Business School (HBS) Study, one-third of 6,500 male millennial HBS graduates expected to split childcare responsibility 50:50 with their partners, compared with 22 per cent of Gen X men and 16 per cent of male baby boomers. Similar findings were reported by Stanford and Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
With rising cost of living, most couples are in dual-worker relationships. In Singapore and Hong Kong, it is almost a necessity for both parents to work to ensure a good life for their family, leaving a gap when unpredictable moments of caregiving arise.
Hence, balancing the dual tug of care and career is no longer just a women’s issue. It is also a men’s issue and, ultimately, a work design issue. Our workplaces have yet to fully adapt to a workforce who are all, at the same time, caregivers. Companies must recognise that we do not — and cannot — have the traditional workforce, where the typical worker is a work-obsessed man supported by his full-time, homemaker wife.
Notably, caregiving today also includes caring for aged parents. The 1960s Baby Boom is morphing into an Elder Boom, and this will hit us hard if our workplaces are not prepared.
Although flexiwork schemes exist in most companies, often they are not working. Companies need to ask themselves honestly: How many people are taking advantage of those policies? And how many who have worked flexibly have advanced to the top?
Some managers refuse to let employees work flexibly, prioritising presence over performance. Even when flexiwork is accessible, employees eschew it, fearing the associated stigma of being out of office.
One novel and exciting initiative to erase this stigma is Telstra’s All Roles Flex movement. Its premise is that all roles are flexible, unless a manager can justify otherwise. Flexibility can mean part-time work, different working hours or working from different locations.
Telstra’s All Role Flex policy showed encouraging results. Company-wide female representation had increased, and 30 per cent of new applicants stated that they applied because of the new flexibility. Now, the company sees flexibility as the norm instead of a rarely broached alternative, helping all workers to balance the tensions between care and career. The model has since been adopted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, ANZ Banks and the Australian Securities Exchange.
Many people have children because it can be a deeply rewarding experience. But we need to ensure that everyone — women and men both — has the genuine choice to take this up, without losing access to paid employment. Society should accommodate and support caregiving, instead of penalising this choice. Having a rewarding career, along with a personal life that allows for the satisfactions of loving and caring for others, should be available to all of us, not only the privileged few with access to full-time care support. It is up to all of us to make this happen.
By Corinna Lim, Catalyse Consulting Director