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Why ‘The Flexibility Stigma’ Is Making Women Quit -

Republished by Forbes

The Covid-19 home working revolution has lead to greater flexibility for some. However, for millions of others, longer hours, always-on emails, and constantly juggling home and work roles, have made them stressed, depressed, and desperate. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide if you’re working from home or sleeping in the office. 

Last week, a white-collar trade union suggested a solution. Prospect, whose members include U.K. managers, civil servants, engineers, and scientists, called on the British government to ban out-of-hours emails from bosses. The union wants a legally binding “right-to-disconnect.”

This has been the law in France since 2017. Policies include blocking computer servers during evenings and weekends, email signature messages that advise the recipient they don’t have to respond immediately, and encouragement to report abusive situations.

Homeworkers have worked longer and more irregular hours during the pandemic. Studies show saved commuting time converts into an average of six hours of unpaid overtime each week. Experiments with heart rate monitors show anxiety levels spike the highest when reading work emails which invade personal time. Even the expectation of needing to check work emails after hours is linked to chronic stress. This lack of personal freedom is strongly connected with depression and earlier death

Tech-enabled, virtual work can feel less like freedom, and more like digital servitude. This trend has impacted most workers, but its unfairly disadvantaged one group in particular: working mothers. Coronavirus has intensified an existing “double shift” phenomenon: a frantic day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children, home-schooling, or catching up on household chores. In the US, nearly 3 million American women have left the workforce over the past year. According to Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn organization, women are “maxing out and burning out”. McKinsey & Company reports more than one in four women are contemplating downshifting their careers, or leaving the workforce completely. 

In a post-pandemic world, global organizations will need to develop leaders of both sexes that are able to deliver transformational change. The pandemic could set gender diversity plans back by years, meaning fewer women in leadership positions now; and, far fewer women on track to be leaders of the future.

The Hidden Hurdle  

As well as the mental stress of remote working, the pandemic has worsened a concealed cultural problem for aspiring female leaders. What researchers have called “The Flexibility Stigma” means, even when adaptable work options are available, there is a concealed shame in using them.

This insidious dynamic begins with a shared perception. A study of over 6,500 Harvard Business School alumni, from virtually every industry, found more than three-quarters of both men and women attributed women’s blocked advancement to one reason: they prioritize family above work. 

This belief has led to a stampede of organizations attempting to level the playing field for working mothers. Accommodating options include part-time jobs, flexitime, time off, and sabbaticals. The aim is to retain and promote women into senior positions. Aside from the moral imperative around equality, executive boards haven’t missed that profits and share performance can be close to 50% higher when women are well represented at the top.

It’s paradoxical, that in attempting to remove one barrier, companies have revealed another. This obstacle is all the more difficult to navigate because it’s never publicly acknowledged. It may be officially invisible, but female employees are all too aware, in balancing home and work responsibilities, they risk tanking their career.

Studies show the personal costs are very real: negatively affecting wages, performance ratings, and promotion chances. One frazzled female executive, who is contracted to work 4 days per week, confided: “My male boss seems to deliberately leave a grey area around when I need to be available. It means I’m never sure, when I’m juggling work and home, when I’ll be urgently needed. Inevitably, balls get dropped.” 

The stress of always-on work began before Covid-19. However, the rise of Zoom and its close cousins have intensified the situation. In this toxic context, both male and female leaders struggle to cope with the mindless valorization of unceasing labor. However, the issue is more challenging for working mothers because they are far more likely to have to avail themselves of flexible work policies. When they do, as one researcher puts it, they risk falling “into social disgrace”. For example, in one law firm, flexible workers were considered “time deviants”. They had broken the rule that lies “at the heart of what it means to be a true professional”. 

We’ll see if the UK government follows other European countries to adopt a right-to-disconnect law later this year. My experience of working with US colleagues is it would be far harder to enact this law in America. President Joe Biden leads the most pro-labor U.S. administration in decades, but so far he’s been silent on this particular issue. That reticence may be down to the fact that a proposed right-to-disconnect billput forward in New York City in 2018 got squashed by business leaders who dismissed it as unnecessary and onerous. 

Whatever governments try to do from here, smart companies need to eradicate the doublethink around flexible working. The first step is to assure all employees that their performance will be measured based on results—not when, where, or how many hours they work. This means carefully considering when meetings happen and reaching an agreement on which emails, if any, need to be responded to outside typical business hours. 

Strategic change consultant Dr. Jacqui Rigby said: “Businesses need to think about small things that make a big difference. I know of one large organization that’s bought in ‘no Zoom’ Friday afternoons, for example. My favorite is setting default online meeting times to 45 minutes rather than an hour. That gives time to download, put the washing on if you’re at home, and recharge for the next meeting.”

Building a fortification between work and home has to start somewhere. As with so many cultural shifts, business leaders have to lay the first brick. To get started they need to offer both explicit and implicit permission to occasionally disconnect outside work hours. The best way for them to do this is to model flexibility in their own working life.