Organizations that offer flexible work options do so for all of their eligible employees (or should, lest they face legal liability). But in workplace cultures across America, you'll find that flexible work—and indeed most work-life balance initiatives—are closely associated with female employees and viewed as a concession to the needs and demands of women workers.This stereotype that flexible work is women's work, experts say, leads many women and men alike to pass up the flexibility options that are already offered by their employers. A recent study found that 35 percent of female professionals avoided using their flextime options for fear it would damage their career prospects. Another survey of women professionals found that two-thirds of respondents who'd stopped working said they'd have stayed on the job if there were a "recognized and respectable" way to scale back and balance their family needs.
Some managers feel flexible work is more of a burden on them than a boon for their people, but smart managers realize that attitude makes for a poor return on investment. The point of flexible work is not just to be nice, but to build and maintain employee satisfaction, reduce factors that lead to burnout, and keep good employees on the job while still allowing them to manage personal responsibilities and seek their goals.
Compared with the cost of finding, hiring and training a replacement for a solid performer, the cost and trouble of supporting flexible work is a minor issue for forward-looking managers. That's why several firms that have led the way in flexibility initiatives are ramping up efforts to make sure that both women and men use and benefit from these programs.
As reported recently in The Wall Street Journal, one such firm—accounting giant Ernst and Young—has launched an internal campaign highlighting men who've succeeded and advanced in the company while still taking time for their personal lives. "We want to make flexibility gender-neutral, so everyone wants to take advantage," says EY's Maryella Gockel, the firm's "flexibility strategy leader."Such efforts have gained special traction at high-powered professional firms like Ernst and Young, where the competitive, workaholic, 12-hour-day culture takes its toll on employees of both genders. While flexibility has helped solve that problem, it's also led to the stigma attached to what's often called the "mommy track."
Therefore, making flextime macho "helps make it legitimate," says noted author and consultant Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose research center conducted the above-mentioned studies. But a gender-neutral approach also helps flexibility realize its full potential—by helping improve the lives, and the performance, of men as well as women in the workplace.