Who cares?
Managing flexibility in the workplace

Speech by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission


20th Women, Management and Employment Relations Conference


Four Seasons Hotel, Sydney
Thursday 24 July 2008


I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered here today on the traditional land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I pay my deepest respects to their elders past and present.

Introduction

Some of you may be aware that on Tuesday I launched my plan of action towards gender equality. I identified 5 priority areas but the one that really hit a chord with Australians everywhere was balancing work and family. So my talk today is directed towards what work actually means for men and women in the 21st century. That’s why conferences like this are so important in keeping the conversation alive!

Flexibility continues to be a topic that has a lot of currency with a steady stream of research by Juliet and many others.[1] Yet for me at least, it is always the stories that come to mind. I’d like to share a couple of my own with you.

Several years ago in my former life as a lawyer, I was asked to deliver a speech at one of the regional law societies. They were trying to attract more female lawyers as members. Would I speak on flexible work practice? But no sooner had I mentioned the words “part-time work” than a gentleman at the front stood up and demanded “You’re not suggesting that lawyers could work part-time are you?”

“Yes” I said and started to point to some examples that were working well.

“Well who’s going to look after the children?” he said. “Sorry”

Well who’s going to look after the children?”

“Well if you’re suggesting that mothers can’t be practising lawyers I’m afraid we will have to agree to disagree.”

“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting!” he said.

“Can I ask you then – why are we wasting tax payers’ money educating women and then allowing them to think they can be productive in the paid workforce?”

“Why are we?” he said.

“Do you have a daughter?” I asked. “Yes”.

“Are you educating her?”

“Yes I am but maybe I shouldn’t be!”

It was the first time I realised the depth of emotion that a discussion about flexible work can invoke!

Beyond DIY Flexibility

It gives me great optimism that we are no longer talking about whether flexible work arrangements should be part of the modern workplace, but rather how we ensure that they exist in a manner that delivers for both the organisation and the individual.

For many people, unfortunately, the rhetoric of flexible work is not matching the reality.

I first came to flexible work about 12 years ago. Some of you will have heard me tell the story of the day it looked like the new area of legal practice which I had been growing and nurturing for 5 years might come to a resounding stop. I was a partner at Blake Dawson and had grown a group known as the Legal Technology Group, which practised at the intersection of technology and law.

5 years after the group had been established, I had a day at work where one of my lawyers popped into my office to tell me she was pregnant. The same afternoon another senior manager came to see me with the same news. What they didn't know was that I also was pregnant. And when three weeks later a fourth lawyer joined the mother-to be queue we knew we had a problem. That was half the entire team that would be out on maternity leave at one time. As the person in charge of the team I had to find solutions and find them fast.

With four of the team pregnant we now had a solid business reason to reinvent the way we worked. We developed a program where the ultimate responsibility for matters rested with the individual, whether or not they worked full or part-time. And if a flexible worker needed to come in on a non-designated work day and could not arrange child care at short notice, they could bring in the kids. They also agreed to carry a mobile phone when away from their home, and to access their e-mail account at least once a day. I wanted each of our flexible workers to remain just as committed to the firm as they had been before they had their maternity leave, and this meant that they maintained their previous position and level of seniority. At the heart of each of these arrangements was reciprocity and trust.

We realized early on that we needed support staff who also shared the vision. That’s when we hired Michelle as a new junior secretary. Michelle had been a secretary for only 3 weeks but she’d been a nanny for 3 years. With that experience, we knew we needed her on our team!

Like most of my staff, I had thought long and hard before I decided to have a baby, and deliberately put off the decision until I was 36 years old.

But having taken the plunge I wanted to be both an involved mother and a committed lawyer. A flexible work arrangement offered me the best opportunity to progress both. At that time there were no part-time partners and no requests from partners to work part-time.

I knew that if this arrangement couldn’t be accommodated within the firm I would need to find a job in a different work environment. I also realized that this request would have to be presented in a manner that showed it would work for both the business and me. Without that reciprocity it wouldn’t be possible. So in 1996, I became the firm’s first part time partner.

We were determined to make flexibility work. As a business owner and people manager, workplace flexibility allowed me to build a supportive and productive environment like nothing else. It built a loyalty among staff that money could not buy.

We didn't set out to change the world, just to make flexibility work in our small team. But that had some amazing flow on impacts and Blake Dawson is now at a stage where in excess of 20 per cent of the workforce works in a flexible work arrangement.

However as a long time advocate for flexible work arrangements, I have now come to a point where I am concerned with systemic flexibility.

It seems to me we have done the easy part. We have now progressed to the stage that I call DIY Flexibility or as Graeme Russell often calls it - MY Flexibility – where an employee requests flexible work often to balance work and family responsibilities and a well intentioned employer runs around to make sure this individual is accommodated. Invariably the result is a 6 day per week job squashed into 3 days with all too predictable results. Many organisations have rolled out flexible work policies and have people (principally women) accessing them, but the hard work is yet to come.

What we haven’t seen as yet is flexibility being embraced as business opportunity. By that I mean organisations embracing flexibility so as to offer new services or to access a significant new talent pool in a manner that works. I think the reason we haven’t see this is, that it requires job redesign. Job redesign is at the heart of true flexible work practice that delivers for both the business and the individual.

Job redesign is not easy. To be successful it requires the redesign of the systems that underpin work (HR systems, financial systems, reward systems etc).

Having effective flexible work practice also means confronting significant attitudinal barriers such as deeply held prejudices about men and women’s roles in both the family and paid work.

We need to challenge the stereotype of the ideal worker – most often thought to be a male, with no visible caring responsibilities, and 24/7 availability.

So, it seems to me that as employees and employers we need to advance flexible work practice on two fundamental fronts - attitudinal change and job redesign.

Conclusion

Redefining work is not for the faint hearted. Sometime I feel like we have been handed this unalterable construct known as “work” and we feel powerless to change it.

For women particularly, but also for men it is clear that success in the workplace will remain elusive for many, unless there is concerted pressure for change – change in work practice, change in culture, in government policy, in the home, and in ourselves.

I urge you to be part of that change.


[1] Including: Prof. Margaret Thornton’s report “The Gender Trap: Flexible Work in Corporate Legal Practice”, Prof. Linda Duxbury’s research into work life balance in the profession; and “Bendable or Expendable?” a joint project of the Victorian Women Lawyers and the Law Institute of Victoria.

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