Women in Technology — Offering flexible working isn’t enough: we need to stop stigmatizing it

Zoë Morris is President at a niche technology staffing firm Mason Frank International. Under her leadership, the company has achieved substantial year-on-year growth and won many industry-based awards.

When it comes to getting more women into the tech industry, there’s work to be done across the board.

Changing attitudes toward women in technology and fixing the academic pipeline to help more girls and young women get started in the sector will, of course, take time. But that’s not to say there aren’t a few quick fixes that organizations can roll out to make them a more inclusive and appealing place for female tech professionals.

One of those is introducing flexible working opportunities. Giving women—who bear the brunt of society’s unpaid care duties—some control over their schedules, and freedom to choose when they work can have a massive impact on their ability to access great tech roles.

In our recent survey of the Salesforce community—which typically boasts a higher percentage of female workers than the tech industry at large—we asked participants what benefits they viewed as most desirable. A higher proportion of women cited flexible and remote working as being important to them than their male colleagues; 22% of female respondents compared to 19% of men.

Despite the widespread desire for flexible working arrangements by female tech professionals, according to our survey, they’re less likely to be offered it than their male counterparts.

Only 58% of women who participated were offered remote or home working options, compared to 64% of men. The disparity is even greater with flexible working hours; 54% of male participants enjoyed this benefit, compared to just 42% of women.

Both technology and our attitudes to the traditional working week are developing in ways that make it easier to work any time, from anywhere. And yet the stigma surrounding flexible working means that it isn’t being utilized to its fullest potential.  

Many women who might benefit from adaptable working arrangements find themselves subjected to “flexibility stigma”; the perception that they’re contributing less than their peers by working flexibly.

A 2018 study by the University of Kent found that 35% of the participants had a negative view of flexible working, believing that it created more work for others. Almost two in five associated their colleagues’ flexible working with negative outcomes.

Interestingly though, the bulk of this bad feeling about flexible working appears to be directed at women. The same study found that the group who felt that the stigma around flexible working had negatively impacted their careers was working mothers (26%). By comparison, just 13% of men without children and 11% of working fathers felt the same.

We know that providing autonomous working arrangements or the freedom to work from home helps foster a more inclusive workforce, but making these options available is only half the battle.

The idea that merely being present in a workplace equates to productivity is one that continues to hold back both employers and staff from reaping the full benefit of flexible working. The fact is, those who work remotely or flexibly often end up working above and beyond their contracted hours, partly to combat the notion that those that “show their face” are inherently more diligent, loyal, or reliable.

Though flexible working arrangements may help more women get into tech in the short-term, if these baseless negative perceptions about professionals who take advantage of flexible working solutions prevail, many women may find themselves unable to progress their careers.

Women who’ve built a career in the tech space are already beating the odds, but many of these professionals still feel they have to work harder to “prove themselves” in a sector that’s still a far cry from being inclusive. On top of this, those who utilize flexible working can find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place: unable to work without these measures, but stigmatized for employing them.

Those who feel that their contribution isn’t valued are more likely to feel disengaged and unsatisfied in their jobs—and with women already quitting the tech sector at an alarming rate, this is something that we simply can’t afford to let happen.

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