Women in Finance series: Making flexible working the norm - and why it shouldn't be the preserve of working mothers

This piece is the first of our Women in Finance series, where we take a closer look at the issue of gender equality in financial services - particularly barriers to women’s career progression.

Related topics:  Special Features
Amy Loddington
19th November 2018
working parent mother laptop child flexible working
"It isn’t only women who are disadvantaged by a rigid working pattern"

The basis for this series is a report by the CIPD which stated that ‘existing barriers to women achieving senior positions include: perceptions about women’s potential; stereotypes; an absence of role models; careers information and guidance; career breaks; caring responsibilities; full time working being the existing norm; a lack of talent spotting; and a lack of mentoring’.

This series aims to take a closer look at these barriers, beginning with the issue of full-time working versus flexible working.

Given that the responsibility of childcare is a key factor in women’s career progression after having children, we are looking at which financial services businesses make it easier for working parents - not just women - to fit their busy schedules together.

As you would expect, there are some excellent examples of flexible working allowances by bigger firms in financial services - Aviva UK, for example, offer a ‘first day of school’ initiative which allows working parents to take a half day of leave when their child starts a new school, as well as introducing a scheme which gives greater benefits to employees with caring responsibilities.

However, many small businesses view this as a thorny subject - smaller workforces often make the logistics of flexible working more complicated, and it can appear financially impossible to support working parents in this way. A report by the ONS showed that mothers with young children have the lowest employment levels of all parents with dependent children at 65.1%. In comparison, the employment rate of fathers with children aged three or four is 93.2%. This indicates that the career impact of childcare is still firmly placed on women’s shoulders - which tends to mean that emergencies such as child illness etc, continues to fall primarily to female carers. 

Size matters (or does it?)

Firms who struggle due to size (or are disinclined) to allow flexibility for working parents are inadvertently disadvantaging their female staff members.

In practice, however, many small businesses can and do foster successful flexible working arrangements for their staff - such as Regency Factors, an invoice finance company based in Manchester. With early finishes allowed for those who need to allow for childcare provision, home working available in the case of a child’s sickness, and Busy Bee nursery vouchers available, employees with children are well supported despite being a small business.

Marketing Manager Rachel Craft said the move to a flexible working pattern is as beneficial to the business as it is the employees who use these freedoms to juggle family life.

“We decided to offer flexible working to staff due to concerns about talent loss,” she explained. “The primary users of flexible working are loyal, long term employees who are very good at what they do - and it would be a loss to the business not to have these staff members on our team just because they happen to be women who need a little extra flexibility.”

A flexible approach breeds commitment

This is an attitude echoed by Clare Jupp, Director of People Development at Brightstar Financial - a business which wears its people-centric ethos on its sleeve, having won Investors in People Gold Employer of the Year in 2016 and Equality Employer of the Year at the inaugural Women’s Recognition Awards in 2018.

She said: “Experience shows us that a flexible, thoughtful and empathetic approach brings fantastic commitment and appreciation from your people and secures outstanding results for the business.”

Jupp’s approach, however, tackles one of the larger problems in encouraging flexible working - in that it is often seen as a tool for working women. Brightstar Financial’s aim, Jupp says, is to “ensure the concept of working parents describes ‘working fathers’ as well as ‘working mothers’ within the business”. It’s something which Jupp herself embodies - both herself and husband Rob Jupp, the firm’s CEO, along with other directors, say that they aim to be role models in the area and take “a flexible approach to work, regardless of gender - doing school runs, attending school events, taking paternity leave”.

Everyone requires flexibility - not just women...

Jupp went on to note that Brightstar encourages flexible working by male employees as well as taking paternity leave, and added:

“I believe that if organisations are genuinely looking to achieve greater gender parity, then the change must be a cultural one and it must come from the top. Businesses must regard work/life balance and the implementation of flexible working practices as being important and available for all and should look to at least begin discussions about how a dynamic working policy could work in their organisation.”

It’s clear that there is a need to redefine the perceived ‘burden’ of requiring flexible working - which is often associated with post-maternity working and delayed career progression - into one which is desirable and achieveable for all staff members.  A Working Families study cited a lack of senior male role models as a barrier to flexible working, alongside fears about career progression - which indicates that a top-down approach, such as is practised at Brightstar Financial, might help break down these barriers.

By making flexible working organisation-wide and not limited to gender - or even to parents - it redistributes the burden of responsibility for last-minute childcare, time off for dependents’ illness and other routine occurrences. This, in turn, makes it both less likely that women become the default carer in these circumstances - and, perhaps more crucially, removes the perception that everyday caring responsibilities are a hindrance to career progression.

Rebecca Aldridge, founder of boutique financial planning firm Balance: Wealth Planning, based in Nottingham & Derby, says that their drive to encourage flexibility was rooted in being a working parent, but that it has become an integral part of the company’s ethos.

“We were founded by two financial planners who are also mums - I’m one of those founders, and I understand the challenges of being a working parent, so from the outset I knew I wanted flexible working to be one of our key principles. More and more of us are moving away from a 9-to-5 way of working - it’s good for our mental well-being, it’s good for our families and it’s good for employers too.”

...and ultimately it benefits everybody

Aldridge noted that embedding flexibility in their working culture has meant it is no longer seen as the preserve of working mothers, demonstrating that it isn’t only women who are disadvantaged by a rigid working pattern.

She added: “As a business, we offer flexible working as standard to every member of the team. They don't have to be parents or carers and they don't need any reason for it. All that we insist on is that calendars are kept updated and that their contracted hours are completed. As a result, we have members of the team that regularly flex their working hours to fit around school commitments, walking the dog, or doing things with family.”

Despite the continued gender imbalance, it does appear that the introduction of flexible working practices and shared parental leave have made it easier for fathers to share childcare responsibilities. ONS data reflects this social change, showing a marked increase in the number of fathers who have young children working part-time, which has almost doubled from 3.9% in 1997 to 6.9% in 2017.

There are undoubtedly businesses who are working to tackle the ingrained reluctance to relax the 9-5, and those who are supporting working parents regardless of childcare - but there remains many more who are stuck in a much more rigid mindset.

Failing to help shift that mindset is not only a direct blow to women’s career progression. In a working population who is increasingly accustomed to flexibility and choice, and who change roles much more frequently than in the past, it is also simply missing a trick.

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