There’s a myth in this country that only women with children can ask for flexible working rights such as time off to look after a dependent or for a sabbatical. It’s not true, and in the last few years I’ve become a vocal advocate for ensuring that women of ALL ages have the right to be treated fairly, equally and with respect in the workplace.
Consider my own team. Some work remotely and some in my office, some are full time and some are freelance. I’ve built my business around the needs of my staff and, as a result, I’ve been rewarded with low staff turnover, increased loyalty and staff who are willing to go the extra mile. It’s been a real win/win.
One of my longest serving members of staff openly shares that, without the option to work from home, something that she’s done for the entire time she’s been with me, her career would have been dead in the water. She has a son with special needs and, despite her skills and experience, she was openly discriminated against.
This experience has proved to me that flexible working is the answer to so many of the issues we find commonplace, such as a lack of women holding top positions and lower salaries. We will continue to have fewer choices until we address this imbalance and choose instead to respect the fact that women want a career without having to pretend that the rest of their life isn’t happening in order to make that work.
The problem remains though that very few of us know that we have this right, and even fewer believe they’ll actually get flexible working hours – fearing discrimination in the workplace if they ask – and with good reason. At present, everyone (including those who don’t have children) with 26 weeks service behind them can ask for flexibility.
But as this case from solicitors Herrington Carmichael shows, even employers are unsure of their rights and too many requests are dismissed. It does highlight that there are currently eight legal grounds that employers can use to deny employees their right to flexible working and how effectively difficult these loopholes in the existing legislation can make it to obtain these rights.
This is why, just last week, the Conservative MP Helen Whately introduced a flexible working bill in parliament. Her aim is to cut the gender pay gap (still around 30%, with 78% of top companies in the UK admitting to discrepancies between men and women) and benefit parents with childcare responsibilities, making it easier for companies to keep their staff.
Supporting all of the incredible work of Anna Whitehouse (or Mother Pukka, as she is also known) and her Flex Appeal campaign, should the bill pass it will mean flexible working rights for all – everyone, at every age, can ask for the right to work flexibly.
She takes the existing legislation beyond its current position by asking that, unless a very good reason exists, all jobs should offer flexible working hours as the default and not the other way around, removing any need for discriminatory practise.
She said: "The 40-hour, five-day working week made sense in an era of single-earner households and stay-at-home mums, but it no longer reflects the reality of how many modern families want to live their lives.”
"At the moment, too many women are reluctantly dropping out of work or going part-time after having children because their employers won't allow them flexibility.”
"This entrenches the assumption that men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers.”
"As a result, men don't get to spend as much time as they might like with their children, women miss out on career opportunities, and the country loses out on the contribution they could and would like to make –if only they could do slightly different hours or work some days from home."
And it’s a popular idea with the public. An impressive 89% of British workers believe that flexible working boosts their productivity. Out of the hundreds of responses our survey generated, most of you would like the right to work from home or be able to change your working hours.
Charities and organisations like ACAS are also behind this shift, and I believe that it is the way forward for a modern, balanced workforce. It’s not about just making a stand for myself as a small business owner, it makes good business sense. I invest heavily in my staff and if their lives change, I want to be able to keep them, after all, it’s a lot easier to retain great staff than it is to hire new ones.
There’s still time for you to make a difference. Take a look at my survey now to share your understanding of flexible working rights. It’s part of a major research project and we really need your help to shape our campaign and the future of women’s employment rights - it takes less than a minute to complete so it is super quick to do!
I’m going to personally ensure that the results are presented to Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who is heading up a Government review of its Flexible Working Policy.
As I’ve said all the way through this campaign – flexibility is not just for a few. It is for EVERY woman, regardless of age or position, and it means that we will be able to progress our careers, earn higher salaries and achieve a better work/life balance.