New maternity and paternity leave legislation could change the way we think about work


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It will make organisations deal with the reality that our roles as people and parents can't be left behind as soon as we enter the office door.

However, changes in policy don't always translate in practice. We still have a situation where it's assumed that men are primarily work-orientated and will work full-time hours. Managers and organisations find it very difficult to understand the idea that men might want to work flexibly and give up any part of their work identity and status.

Research has shown that both men and women experience barriers to career progression as a result of working flexibly to meet family commitments. Evidence also shows that employers tend to assume that part-time working because of childcare is a signal of a lack of commitment, and people are overlooked for the opportunities and projects which put them in the right position for promotions.

Essentially, the UK still has an old-fashioned workplace culture, dominated by male ways of doing things and where there are strict barriers between what belongs in an efficient, hard-nosed workplace and what belongs in the softer domain of home and children. At the same time, it's certainly not easier for men to work flexibly for their family. It's tough for women and extremely difficult for men.

Why hasn't the working world changed? We've had many changes in policy, and we've had widespread and profound social changes in terms of attitudes to the role of dads in the home. Organisations have been little affected by any of this. If anything flexible working has been used as an opportunity to make employees more flexible rather than themselves - encouraging staff to be available to work whenever they're needed.

The reason for the lack of response to the wider landscape appears to be fear of change. What happens if everyone starts demanding flexible working hours to look after family? The belief is that this kind of family-friendly working for women and men will mean a change in the very nature of how organisations operate. And they're quite right about that, workplaces would be different and involve new attitudes and rules. But this doesn't have to mean a decline in efficiency or productivity, just more scope for approaches to work, which are human-shaped and sized.

Change is going to be slow because the resistance is so deep-rooted in established ideas of what work means. What matters is constant awareness and discussion of the situation we're in and the challenges it presents to employees.

Parents need to keep asking and being persistent about issues relating to how their home lives fit with work. In that way the new policy is important, because it's at least promoting the principle, the idea that it's okay to ask. It's also valuable for shifting the emphasis away solely from women as those who are 'not work-orientated'.

Dr Caroline Gatrell (pictured) Senior Lecturer, Lancaster University Management School


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