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How 'fake flexibility' is forcing working mums out of work

Mature small business owner sitting at table with child on lap and making notes, multitasking, working mother, efficiency
'Fake flexibility' predominantly affects women in the workplace, particularly mothers. Photo: Getty (10'000 Hours via Getty Images)

Employees value it more than any other benefit, and employers know that it works: Flexible working allows everyone to be happier and more productive.

However, for one group in particular, it’s much more than a bonus - the ability to work flexibly is essential for working mothers to stay in work. But research shows more companies are overstating just how flexible they really are.

Flexibility is a top priority among jobseekers, so more companies are trying to appeal to this growing preference. However, a Careering into Motherhood survey of 2,100 working mothers highlighted concerns that offers of flexible working aren’t always legitimate, with some employers expecting full-time work to be completed within part-time hours.

Read more: Why do some employers foster a culture of false urgency?

While 92% reported that their employer is fully or partially receptive to flexible working requests, there were many reports of negative responses from managers – and 46% believed that asking for flexible working impacts future promotion opportunities. In other words, organisations are falling short of offering flexible hours or remote options without caveats.

Mothers 'paying price' of fake flexibility

And women - namely, mothers - are paying the price. According to recent research by the Fawcett Society, a quarter of a million mothers with young children have left their jobs because of a lack of flexible working arrangements, soaring childcare costs and outdated attitudes towards motherhood.

“Fake flexibility is a real thing - companies talk flex, and then when you get to the company meetings start at 9am on the dot and people stay until 5.30pm,” says Sarah Taylor Phillips, career coach at Career Voyage.

“A lack of flexible working predominantly affects women because they’re doing the lion’s share of work in the home and they take on the mental load too.”

Group of business persons having a meeting in a closed glass conference room
Flexible working can help companies create and nurture a more diverse workforce. Photo: Getty (Anchiy via Getty Images)

As well as trying to draw in talent with false promises of flexibility, businesses are able to take advantage of the vagueness of the term ‘flexible work’. It’s easy to be non-committal about what kind of arrangement is on offer - and to then turn down requests on this basis.

Coupled with this fake flexibility, stigma surrounding working mothers is rife. Although employees have a legal right to request flexible work, almost 38% of working mums haven’t asked for flexible work - with nearly half believing that it would limit future promotion opportunities.

Read more: Four-day weeks to pregnancy rights: What workers could expect to see in 2024

More than three-quarters (76%) of working mums say their career has been impacted more than their partner’s career after having a child. A further 65% felt there had been fewer career opportunities for them since maternity leave.

How businesses can be truly flexible

However, by offering genuine flexibility, organisations can reap the benefits of a more diverse, productive and loyal workforce - while closing the gender pay gap and tackling the motherhood penalty. So what can businesses do to make sure they’re truly flexible?

Consider all flexibility options

When we think of flexible working, we tend to think about remote or hybrid arrangements, flexi-hours or four-day weeks. But there are many other ways to provide flexibility too and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

“Remote working was normalised in the pandemic, but other flex choices were ignored, like job share options,” says Phillips.

“You can match someone downsizing or upsizing their careers with each other. Individuals get the flex they need and businesses get the complete resourcing solution they require.”

Normalise working flexibly

Often, what companies say and what happens in practice are two different things. Working parents often feel embarrassed, ashamed or anxious if they have to change their hours or leave early, but normalising this can make a big difference. No hard-working employee should feel guilty or worried for finishing work early.

“There needs to be ‘leaving loudly’ behaviour to encourage employees to leave early and showcase it’s a great thing to do,” says Phillips.

Approve flexible working requests

Employees are now able to make two flexible working requests a year from their first day of employment, thanks to the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill.

However, there’s no guarantee that a request will be granted. In fact, one in three requests for flexible working are turned down.

Read more: Why people don't want to climb the career ladder to become managers

To stop women from being pushed out of the workforce, approving requests needs to become the norm instead of the exception. At the very least, employers need to reach a fair compromise with their staff if they can’t fully grant their initial request.

Clear job adverts

For job seekers, clarity about the level of flexibility their employer can offer is essential - whether it’s fully remote work or reduced hours.

Molly Johnson-Jones, CEO and Founder of the flexible job-seekers site Flexa, says: “Companies may claim to offer flexible working on job adverts, but are under no obligation to offer it in practice.

"This makes it nearly impossible for job seekers to determine which employers will genuinely accommodate their requests for flexible work.”

Watch: 5 tell-tale signs of burnout