Some women don’t require reduced work hours; they merely need flexibility in when, where, and how they do their work. Even parents who employ nannies or have children in day care, for example, must make time for teacher conferences, medical appointments, volunteering, child-related errands—not to mention the days the nanny calls in sick or the day care center is closed. Someone caring for an invalid or a fragile elderly person may likewise have many hours of potentially productive time in a day yet not be able to stray far from home.
For these and other reasons, almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the women we surveyed cite flexible work arrangements as being either extremely or very important to them. In fact, by a considerable margin, highly qualified women find flexibility more important than compensation; only 42 percent say that “earning a lot of money” is an important motivator. In our focus groups, we heard women use terms like “nirvana” and “the golden ring” to describe employment arrangements that allow them to flex their workdays, their workweeks, and their careers.
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Making flexible arrangements succeed over the long term is hard work. It means crafting an imaginative set of policies, but even more important, it means eliminating the stigma that is often attached to such nonstandard work arrangements. As many as 35 percent of the women we surveyed report various aspects of their organizations’ cultures that effectively penalize people who take advantage of work-life policies. Telecommuting appears to be most stigmatized, with 39 percent of women reporting some form of tacit resistance to it, followed by job sharing and part-time work. Of flexible work arrangements in general, 21 percent report that “there is an unspoken rule at my workplace that people who use these options will not be promoted.”
Parental leave policies get more respect—though even here, 19 percent of women report cultural or attitudinal barriers to taking the time off that they are entitled to. In environments where flexible work arrangements are tacitly deemed illegitimate, many women would rather resign than request them.
Interestingly, when it comes to taking advantage of work-life policies, men encounter even more stigma. For example, 48 percent of the men we surveyed perceived job sharing as illegitimate in their workplace culture—even when it’s part of official policy.
Transformation of the corporate culture seems to be a prerequisite for success on the work-life front. Those people at or near the top of an organization need to have that “eureka” moment, when they not only understand the business imperative for imaginative work-life policies but are prepared to embrace them, and in so doing remove the stigma.
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