Flexible working is great. All the research says it is what workers want. Yet a study out last week stated that women who work flexibly on a long-term basis tend to be less satisfied with their jobs than men.

The study by Dr Daniel Wheatley at Nottingham Business School said that women who worked flexibly were happier in their home lives so it was not all bad news. But why are the women less satisfied at work?

It turns out that it boils down to the fact that women who work flexibly are more likely to work part time because of childcare reasons whereas men were more likely to work flexi hours and, if they do opt for part-time hours, it is for short-term goals like combining work and study or as a way of reducing their workload before retirement.

Unlike the men, the women were neither at the start or the end of their careers, but had a few years of work experience behind them and were ready to progress their careers. Only many of them found themselves unable to.

As Dr Wheatley commented, they might find themselves "trapped in 'restrictive' flexible employment" and "only able to gain low skilled employment", leading to limitations on their career progression.

It's something many women experience and some would argue that you can't have it all. But does career progression have to be sacrificed by part-time workers, given that part time covers everything under full-time hours? And why is it still mainly mothers who are reducing their hours in their middle years, the crucial time for career progression?

Alternative career paths

A growing number of employers across a variety of sectors are looking at ways to ensure career progression for flexible workers. They include management consultancy A. T. Kearney which has created a global work life programme called Success with Flex.

It was set up by a group of female consultants after they came back from maternity leave in 2004. All are still with the company and have progressed up the career ladder, demonstrating the benefits of the programme both for individuals and the company.

In addition to flexible working, which is advertised from recruitment upwards, and career mentors, the company allows for alternative career paths, for instance, consultants can move to non-consultant roles or work on internal projects for a period.

HR manager Henriette Smith acknowledges there are challenges, but says: "We want to help people achieve that next progression and reach their career goals and aspirations."

Another issue is training for flexible workers. May miss out on in-house training because it can tend to be modelled on a full-time, office-based worker. 

As leadership expert and founder of Successfactory Graham Wilson puts it: "Hiring people on their talent and then not allowing them to use that is not going to get the best out of them." Instead he says employers should look to develop all their staff with a focus on building on their strengths. 

One company which invests heavily in staff training is Cariad Marketing. All members of staff, immaterial of the number of hours they work, benefit from a broad range of training opportunities. Every staff member has a six-monthly appraisal where their training needs are assessed and in monthly one to one meetings managers can keep tabs on how things are going. 

"Our mission is not to be the biggest digital marketing company, but we do want to be the greatest," says managing director Justine Perry. "To do that we have to keep one step ahead."


But there are still too few employers taking this approach and investing in all their employees. The underlying assumption is that women are not as committed to their jobs after having children when they have even more reason to be committed.

When just getting to work can be a challenge if you've been up half the night with a teething baby or a sick child it could be argued that you have to be more committed than most – particularly if you do so in the face of negative comments from colleagues.

That underlying assumption, together with rising levels of direct or indirect discrimination against mothers, may be part of the reason many young women are worried that their gender will affect their career progression.

According to the first Think Future Study by the 30% Club just 42% of women are confident that their gender will have no bearing on their career progression compared to 72% of men and just 43% of women express the view that gender will have no future bearing on their pay and reward compared to 73% of men. 

Since women are the majority of graduates these days, those employers who fail to address career progression for all their employees in all their ages and stages will miss out. 

One woman who saw her career limited due to an inflexible employer is Sam Willoughby. She resigned when her employer did not support her request to return to work on reduced hours. She spent some time licking her wounds and feeling "worthless" despite her years of experience as a project manager. 

But then she picked herself up, motivated in large part by her employer's reaction. and founded her own company, What's On 4. Ten years on, that company has won several awards and is now an international franchise.  "That rejection was a massive motivation," she says."I wanted to prove them wrong."

Employers should take note.

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