Jonathan Swan: How flexible working can help close the gender pay gap

jonathan swan

Many organisations are thinking about how they can close their gender pay gap. Fortunately for most, they have a powerful tool at hand in the shape of flexible working. Using flexibility strategically, as part of a wider approach to work-life balance, provides an opportunity to tackle some of the stubborn issues that underpin pay inequality. So what might this look like in practice?

Employers need to know how flexibility is currently playing out within their organisation. If flexibility is about allowing employees to make choices about how they combine their working and non-working lives, is this happening right across the board, or are there problem hotspots? Understanding access to, and use of, flexibility at line manager and team level is important, and will provide insights into the wider cultural climate. It is also crucial to grasp the distribution of flexibility, especially in relation to women. Is it available at more senior levels, or clustered in lower-level jobs? In particular, can you find positive examples of women and men being promoted while working flexibly?

Making use of flexibility makes sense from a business perspective. Practitioners should harness arguments for flexibility from the dual perspective of equality and performance. Ensuring flexibility is available at senior levels, for example, opens up the talent pipeline, while also addressing the well-documented issue of wasted potential, where women have been confined to lower-level jobs in order to be certain of getting the working arrangements they need.

Employers can also use flexibility to meet changing expectations: men, especially fathers with young children, increasingly want better access to flexible working opportunities. By ‘fixing the men’ and allowing them to make different work-life choices, space opens up for women in the workforce. Encouraging men to take up more flexibility means employers need to look at culture; positive examples of behavioural change are needed. The opportunity afforded by Shared Parental Leave to show men taking longer periods away from work for family reasons is one employers should maximise through policy support and promotion.

Jonathan Swan is head of research at Working Families