Flexible work — for everyone — is key to keeping women in the workforce, experts say

by - 6 min read

Flexible work — for everyone — is key to keeping women in the workforce, experts say

by - 6 min read

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Leigh Mitchell left a traditional office job in September 2017, after finding the culture and work structure incompatible with raising her two busy kids, then 13 and eight.

With its tight deadlines and intense pressure to be physically present in the office, “I just didn’t feel like the culture there was good for working moms,” said Mitchell, who lives in Toronto. 

In addition, she said, it was an old-fashioned work environment — “nothing was on the cloud.” If one of her kids woke up sick on a school morning, Mitchell would still have to find a way to get into the office and put the files she needed onto a memory stick so she could work from home.

When she raised these issues with her boss, Mitchell was told she should just get used to buying rotisserie chickens for dinner and “find a grandmother or another older person that would maybe like to be around kids.”

“I don’t know where that Mary Poppins person exists that just magically wants to help out,” she said.

Leigh Mitchell has a 25-hour-per-week job working remotely from home as a website editor, and runs a network for self-employed women on the side. She finds it better suits her lifestyle than her former office job. (Jenny Jay)

Today, Mitchell has a 25-hour-per-week job working remotely from home as a website editor, and runs a network for self-employed women on the side. The mix is working much better, she said.

Mitchell is not alone among women who have left a job for family reasons. The difficulties of managing family and work life — child-care shortages, schools that let out hours before the end of the work day — continue to push disproportionate numbers of women out of the workforce compared to men.

In 2018, 15 per cent of women who left their jobs and are now out of the labour force did so for personal or family reasons, according to Statistics Canada. In comparison, only three per cent of men who left jobs did so for the same reason.

But labour market experts say more flexible workplace policies across the board — regardless of gender or family status — are a key part of stopping the economy from hemorrhaging qualified female workers.

If we were able to raise female participation to that of men, we could add over 1.3 million people to Canada’s labour force.– Emna Braham , senior economist, Labour Market Information Council

Emna Braham, senior economist at the Labour Market Information Council in Ottawa, said women’s labour force participation in Canada is about eight per cent lower than it is for men.

That gap might seem modest on first glance, she said, “but when you’re looking in a context of growing skills and labour shortages, that actually has a very important significance.”

“If we were able to raise female participation to that of men, we could add over 1.3 million people to Canada’s labour force.”

Given that women represent 57 per cent of all people graduating from university — according to Statistics Canada data from 2016, the most recent year available — their absence removes a highly educated cohort from the labour market at a time when there’s a shortage of skilled workers.

Of course, access to child care must improve as well. A Statistics Canada report released last week found that one third of parents with kids under six had difficulty finding child care

But alongside quality care for kids, a flexible work environment is a critical piece of the puzzle. 

“The literature on flexible work is a bit smaller, but we think it’s still something that’s very important,” said Braham. “Even if you have access to child care, it often entails flexibility from your employer to drop off and pick up your child.”

Without a range of flexible work options, workplaces “cannot help women reconcile what is unreconcilable.”

Flexibility benefits more than just moms

When employers offer more than just the standard 9-5 day in the office, it makes them appealing to more than just moms.

“We’re also in a context of millennials entering and developing in the workforce, and they have a very strong preference for flexible working arrangements,” said Braham.

Tara Dragon, an Edmonton-based human resources expert who founded flexible work organization Work Evolution, agrees. 

“Flexibility is something of value to people regardless of where they are in their career,” she said. 

“Lots has been studied about the millennials and how they like variety, but we also know that folks who are late in their careers — the ones with all of the experience and organizational history and knowledge — they don’t want to just stop working one day. They want to ease out just as some people would like to ease in at different points in their career.”

Flexible work includes things like part-time or off-peak hours, the option to work remotely and even short-duration contracts.

Toronto mom of two Jennifer Hargreaves said her own quest for work that would allow her to manage her load at home led her to found tellent — an online resource for women that provides access to flexible work opportunities as well as return-to-work programs for moms who’ve been out of the workforce for a while.

Jennifer Hargreaves founded tellent, a community and resource that helps connect women to flexible work arrangements, after finding herself carrying most of the responsibility for the care of her two children. (Andy Heics photo )

While working for a branding agency in London, Hargreaves was laid off when she was four months pregnant. Newly married and recently moved from contract to a full-time position, her bosses had taken the opportunity to say that the role “wouldn’t suit someone looking to have a family,” said Hargreaves. “Then I told them I was pregnant, and four days later I was out of there.”

When her family moved back to Canada in March 2014, Hargreaves was pregnant with her second child. Convinced that no one would hire a pregnant woman, and lacking a network of business contacts in Toronto, Hargreaves struggled to see how she could maintain a career.

Her husband, an investment banker who manages a team spread across New York, London and Montreal, travels frequently. “I thought, ‘Oh, well I guess this is my lot in life. I’m the mom — it’s my job to stay home.’

“But the problem with that is I love to work.”

Trust vs. accommodation

Too often, when flexibility is extended to a parent who needs to work from home because a child has a doctor’s appointment, or to leave early to make a summer camp pickup, workplaces treat these as accommodations — as though they’re doing the employee a favour, said Hargreaves.

“These companies don’t have a culture of trust; they have a culture of accommodation,” she said. In a culture of trust, managers understand that people will get their work done, regardless of whether they’re in the line of sight of their bosses between nine and five, she said. “If Joe is not at his desk, who cares?”

In October 2018, Amanda Munday founded a Toronto-based co-working space called The Workaround, which offers on-demand child care.

Co-working spaces are used by the self-employed, remote workers, small startups, creative professionals and anyone else who might need a workspace alternative to the home office or crowded coffee shop some or all of the time. They can also offer an opportunity for water-cooler conversation for those looking for an antidote to some of the isolating aspects of working from home.

The Workaround is a co-working space in Toronto that offers child care. (Amanda Munday)
 
Munday was inspired to start The Workaround as a result of her own challenges managing family and work responsibilities.

“I felt like a real outcast returning to tech as a parent,” said Munday. With meetings frequently held at 9 a.m. or 5 p.m. — incompatible with daycare drop-offs and pickups — she felt like “the whole infrastructure” wasn’t set up to help her succeed.

In order to keep the economy thriving … we need to shift our idea of what the workday looks like.– Amanda Munday , founder and CEO of The Workaround

Munday is clear to note that it’s not just women availing themselves of the co-working and child-care services at The Workaround. About 40 per cent of clients are dads.

“One tech executive father came in early on a Tuesday morning; his nanny had got called for jury duty,” said Munday. “We had never met them before, but he was able to utilize our emergency child care.”

Same-day child-care emergencies are par for the course with parenthood, and Munday said it makes good business sense for employers to offer things like flexible hours and remote working options — especially given the number of millennials becoming parents.

“We’ve got this boom of a workforce that’s moving into the parenting years. In order to keep the economy thriving, to address tech and new jobs, we need to support parents at work and we need to shift our idea of what the workday looks like.

“It’s not an HR issue, or a diversity and inclusion issue. It’s an economic issue about fiscal responsibility. It’s expensive to lose senior employees. It’s expensive to have a woman go on maternity leave and not come back.”

This story originally appeared on CBC

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