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According to Merit?: Normalising flexibility

Every Issue

Cite as: November 2013 87 (11) LIJ, p.88

Men need to become involved in normalising flexibility, especially when more senior roles are still often held by them.  

There is legislation relating directly and indirectly to flexible work arrangements for everyone, irrespective of gender. However, despite the best of legislative intentions, prolific research, recommendations and initiatives, it is still the case that after a few years practising the dropout rate of women in the legal profession begins to climb dramatically.

So what is the problem?

It is undeniable that certain structural barriers exist. It is no secret that there is a shortage of readily accessible and affordable childcare. Further, the law is a conservative profession and courts are very busy, overstretched institutions. So, despite the best efforts of the judiciary and judicial administrators, court timetables and expectations remain rigid. Further, most law firms still expect their professional staff to record their work in six-minute units and too often work extraordinarily long hours (possibly confusing presenteeism with quality output – but that is a story for another day). There is even the complaint that preferential treatment is given to male barristers when it comes to handing out briefs to appear and/or give advice.

However, there appear to be more fundamental attitude issues at play; an unconscious bias that portrays women as a challenging group, with specific needs and attributes, which needs to be catered for differently in the workplace. Employers unwittingly contrast this group with male workers who some think stand out as the ideal employee.

A lot of commentary is flying around out there about the rights of professional mums, but in making this a women’s only issue aren’t we echoing societal attitudes? Aren’t we perpetuating the female carer model, which assumes that caring is done primarily by women, thereby implying that men can continue to behave as so-called model workers unencumbered by family responsibilities?

Although the cliche of the full-time bread-winner husband and home-maker wife is now not as prevalent in society, in subtle and often unconscious ways it continues to shape expectations in the workplace.

Many well-meaning measures designed to reduce work–family conflict and protect employees with family roles can actually reinforce the traditional gender distribution of household responsibilities, perpetuate the ideal worker model and end up consolidating the gender bias.

Initiatives such as women’s mentoring programs, return-to-work workshops and networking with kids’ events, while extremely important, may also inadvertently serve to reinforce gender stereotypes and actually limit opportunities for women and men.

I applaud the LIJ for its profiling of legal professionals striving to achieve work-life balance in the Work In Progress column, particularly because the coverage is given to male and female practitioners.

Research shows that men also want and need flexible work arrangements, but their uptake of flexible working hours is still limited. One reason is fear of career penalties.

A 2010 study showed a disconnect between organisational cultural assumptions that when men become fathers little will change on the work front and the real aspirations of many men to spend time with their families. The authors suggest that workplaces must “see fatherhood as a more serious and time-consuming role and stop assuming that being a good father simply equates to being a good breadwinner”.

Research also shows that men with work-life balance are more effective in their jobs, report higher work performance, are less troubled by work overload, take fewer risks that can compromise productivity and are absent for fewer days. Overall, gender equality produces more effective, profitable workplaces.

Not only do organisations need to foster a culture that is more supportive of flexible work practices for all, but men need to get on board and drive organisational change in normalising flexibility, especially as more senior, influential roles are still often held by them.



Mary Louise Hatch is a lecturer at the College of Law and a member of the Victorian Women Lawyers Work Practices Committee. The views expressed are her own and may not be shared with VWL or the College of Law.

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