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Flexibility at Work: Organizational or Cultural Issue?

A couple of days ago I read a post on LinkedIn about couples juggling work and kids. The post presented the need for having flexible working hours at work, understanding between spouses and need to change gender roles. Many people commended on the post and shared their personal experiences about doing the same.

However, what was interesting to see were some comments (though small in number) being completely negative. One could categorize the comments under these three headings: About getting grandparents/help, about 'sacrifice is a part of the deal/why have kids' and the post/platform being irrelevant/wrong. What I found even more interesting was that most of these comments came from men. I must also share that many of the positive comments were also by men and were in support of sharing childcare responsibility. The men and women who commented negatively on the post belonged to all ages, had various years of experience, and belonged to various industries (so no particular age group or work area) . I must confess I was not very surprised to read these comments

The latest trends in organizational development focus on permanent flexible working options. Another study which was published in India Today claims that Flexible working could boost Indian economy by 141%. Forbes has enough and more articles on the need for flexible working options and even Indian business magazines and papers are talking about this. In Indian context, a study by Shine stated that 52% of people felt that their organization may not have flexible working options. It is important to note that this 52% may not be representative of the larger job market and that this number may be a lot more in smaller towns and cities.

The question to ponder here then is: is flexible working options or the lack of them, an organizational issue or a cultural issue? I agree that many organizations foresee problems when keeping flexible working options including how it affects teams and working in teams, measuring performance and creating roles/functions that can support flexible working options. Saying that, I also believe there is an underlying cultural issue to flexible working options; in India women are still largely responsible for childcare and therefore, men don't need flexible hours to stay at home and take care of household responsibility

Here is some data to support this claim. The Indian Female Labour Force Participation Rate- the share of working age women who are either employed or available for work has fallen historically low at 23.3% in 2017-18. The good news is this also shows that more young girls (age 15-21) are enrolling in higher education and therefore away from work. The not so great news, the decline is highest among women aged between 30-39 years (33.5%). Majority of them reported that they are "attending to domestic duties". It may also be interesting (though the co-relation is not shown in this study) that this decline is in the same year that the new maternity benefit act came into being. Another interesting observation: while there are many organizations who support paternity leave, most men do not avail of this.

As a culture we still believe that child rearing and housework is first and foremost a woman's responsibility. While the primary "woman" is the mother, it could also be the mother-in-law. As seen through the comments, grandparents are seen as the most logical replacement solution for support functions (what about fathers huh?). And while there are numerous benefits of grandparents being home, shouldn't they have a right to live their lives free of responsibilities? (Didn't they already do this once?). In many places it is still considered that the ONLY reason why a woman should work, is for financial reasons. In more "modern" opinions, a woman should "choose between wanting a career and starting a family". But seldom do we hear people saying that husbands should share responsibility at home in child rearing and otherwise (and mind you I do not use the word "Pitch In" because it still implies that the husband is "helping the woman do her job").

In light of this, do organizations have enough demand to consider flexible working options? And would flexible working options mean that more men will share household responsibilities? If the majority of workforce is male and there isn't a felt need by men to take this flexible working option as a way to share household responsibility, organizations find it easier to hire men than women (I wonder if the same logic can be applied to maternity and paternity leaves?). Is there a strong enough business case for organizations to take this seriously and bring this on board. It seems that organizations found it easier to not hire women than to provide them with mandatory maternity leaves and creches.

The common notions and beliefs regarding gender roles need to change while more organizations should consider how to best give flexible working options to employees. Champion organizations should share strong business case for flexi work hours. Work on changing societal and men's mindsets about gender and gender roles needs to go hand in hand with campaigns on educating women. More and more women need to be in the workplace and in leadership roles. More role models, both men and women need to speak up about sharing household responsibilities. Children, both male and female should be encouraged to do housework. Organizations and societies are linked together; change one and the other starts changing. The only question is who begins first?

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