Flexible working as the solution to gender inequality in the workplace

There are a lot of reasons why there is a gender gap in pay across the business world. In part, of course, it’s down to discrimination. At the same time, that’s not the whole of it. There is also a propensity for women to choose jobs which don’t currently pay as well. Another reason is that they are more likely to step out of the work force for several years (or longer) to, for example, raise children. Factors like these add to the already existing inequality.

Let’s start with that most uncomfortable of truths. There is no magic bullet for gender inequality. No one solution or one idea will make it so that suddenly women and men get treated the same. That’s just not possible. For one thing, we aren’t exactly the same. There are a number of differences between us and there is no getting away from that. In fact, that was tried for the longest time during the 80s and the 90s, as explained at length in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. To summarize his conclusion – it didn’t work.

All the same, though there might be differences, these do not give us the right to treat men and women unequally. Quite the reverse. Though we should celebrate the differences between men and women (as well as brunettes and blonds, tall people and short people) these should never be used as the grounds of discrimination of any kind. And really, we should pull out any of the tools in our tool box to help us in that regard.

How flexible working helps fight discrimination

And flexible working certainly can help in that regard. After all, a disembodied voice on the other side of a computer scream is harder to label and discriminate against than a person of flesh and blood standing right in front of us.

There are a number of benefits to flexible working. The obvious one is the one I just mentioned. If you don’t see somebody is a woman or a man, then hopefully you’ll feel less inclined to discriminate against them based on their sex. But that’s hardly the only advantage.

A big one is of course that it will allow us to work from home – a place that research still indicates women spend more time working in the home than men do. And through flexible work, that becomes a great deal easier to manage (of course, it would be even better if men would finally pick up the slack in the housework, but one thing at a time, I guess).

In this way, women can continue to work while taking childrearing or caring for a family member. Similarly, flexible work also often makes it easier for us to work in part time roles, so that even if we do want to spend more time with the kids or at home, then there is still a possibility to not interrupt the career entirely.

Another useful way that having a screen between us helps is that it gives both sides time to process what is being said and consider how they’ll react. That pause can be incredibly useful in moderating our baser instincts and avoiding a great deal of discrimination. Of course, this will only work if the people responsible are actually aware they’re discriminating.

But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine

While flexible work has advantages, there are some downsides as well. One of the biggest is that the infamous troll problem. We find it far easier to be nasty to people who we don’t have to look in the eye as we’re being nasty to them.

Of course, that can be partially sidestepped by making sure that the work is flexible only and not totally remote. Nonetheless, there is a real case to be made that we’re less kind and caring online than we are offline. And that, if we’re not careful, can lead to other problems.

Another problem, of course, is that in many companies flexible workers aren’t seen as on par with the people who do come in everyday from nine to five, in large part because we see the one group more than the other. This too can create a two-tier system, which might not discriminate against women directly, but – as more women choose for flexible work schedules – still leads to discrimination against them.

The solution here would be for the whole company to embrace a flexible work structure. If everybody works at home some of the time, then the chance a two-tier system would be created is much smaller. Perhaps employees only have to come in for a few days a week, when all the meetings are scheduled, while working at home on other days.

A third problem is that discrimination can still occur, just based on a name. There is research that shows that when CVs are sent out with foreign-sounding names versus local ones, companies will give callbacks the applicants with foreign names far less frequently. Similarly, there are plenty of stories of when people sign off on emails with female versus male names, they are treated differently by the people on the other end.

These are hard problems to combat. Fortunately, it is not impossible. One of the most important ways that we can prevent this kind of discrimination among our colleagues is to show them what it is like on the other side. Working remotely makes this possible in ways that face to face doesn’t.

After all, we can’t change our bodies, but we can certainly change how we sign off on an email. This is what one man did with his female colleague for a week. They switched email handles. That’s all. For the rest they worked just as they have always done, for writing service companies.

The result, as the story shows, was absolutely stunning. He received a lot more criticism (which he had to learn to handle) and even was asked if he was single. More importantly, it made him aware of the ‘invisible advantage’ that he experienced at work, just for being able to use a male name.

This is a must do experiment for any company where people work flexibly. The reason? It will let men actually see the problems that exist. And as awareness is the first step to dealing with any problem, that is therefore a vital step. From there, discussion and workshops will be far more effective in changing policies.

Will that cure discrimination in the workplace?

As I said in the beginning, there isn’t a magic bullet. Nonetheless, these solutions will make matters better. It will be another step along the long road to equality. And as long as we keep moving forward, steadily, not only will we keep getting closer to solving the problems of inequality (even if it is still a long way off) but we’ll also be making life a little bit better every day.

And though that’s not the same as solving all our problems, that’s still progress. And that has to count for something. (In fact, it counts for a lot).


Luisa Brenton is a brand developer in the past; mom, educational blogger in the present. She writes in a variety of venues – academic, business, and online marketing content. Find more on Facebook and Twitter.