Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Is Flexible Working Holding Back Women's Careers?

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Is Flexible Working Holding Back Women's Careers?

Article excerpt

How universities handle flexible hours is an area for improvement, says a joint report by employers and unions. Jack Grove writes

Letting people work hours that help them juggle childcare and professional commitments would seem like an unqualified good for university staff.

But flexible working can also be a "double-edged sword", with adverse consequences on women's long-term career prospects, a major new study has warned.

In a report published last week, the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff's working group on gender pay says there is a "misperception of the value of flexible workers" at some institutions that meant that "some individuals...could be seen as less promotable because they work flexibly".

That harmful view is more likely to affect women than men, says the group, which included representatives from universities, trade unions and the Equality Challenge Unit.

New arrangements that allow couples to share parental leave, which came into effect in April, may start to "redistribute the caring responsibilities between men and women" and "shift the accompanying perceptions of the value to organisations of those who work flexibly", the report suggests.

But more must be done to promote the wider benefits of flexible working for universities as well as staff, according to Donna Rowe-Merriman, senior national officer for education at Unison, which leads the trade union involvement in the working group.

"We need to challenge the perception that someone on flexible hours is getting a 'perk' - they are just as employable and worthy of promotion," said Ms Rowe-Merriman.

"In fact, greater use of flexible working leads to greater productivity and a more motivated workforce," she said.

Studies show that both men and women benefit from the availability of flexible working, reducing stress levels at work, Ms Rowe-Merriman adds.

Of course, some department heads may reasonably argue that flexible hours are not always possible. If an academic wishes to go part-time, it may not always be easy to find someone qualified and willing to take on the remainder of their workload, with the extra duties likely to be shared across existing staff instead.

In one case highlighted in the report, one female academic at a large pre-1992 university was told she might not get her full-time job back if she opted to work part-time for two years.

She eventually took a two-year career break so she could return full-time, which union officials argued was "bizarre" as she would fall further behind on her research and teaching. …

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