Young men want flexibility, a good sign for workplace gender equality

Millennial men's interest in having a fuller life out of work than their predecessors may accelerate gender equality, but only if they are also interested in caring for children, according to the visiting Dean of Harvard Kennedy School.

Professor Iris Bohnet, in Australia for a VicHealth workforce equality symposium, said she had noted an increase in demand for more flexible work among 20 to 30 year-old male employees, but as yet that was "not focused on care-giving".

Professor Iris Bohnet, at VicHealth’s equality symposium, says it is a hopeful sign for workplace gender equality that more young men are interested in flexible work arrangements.Credit:VicHealth

"We are seeing men's interest in flexible work and having more time to have another life other than work … in wanting time for hobbies, and in saying, 'there's more to life than making money'.

"We are hopeful this increased demand for flexibility is going to benefit everyone, including women," said Professor Bohnet, also co-director of  the Kenndy's Women and Public Policy Program.

She warned employer bias against promoting part-time workers and general "promotion gaps" between genders still made it “super risky” for female employees to leave the workforce altogether to care for young children.

"It is still a reality that, even if she gets a job (after taking time out for child care), the pay is going to be much lower. Middle-aged poverty is a reality."

Professor Bohnet said the "trying to fix women mindset", which presumed if women were encouraged to ask confidently for promotion more would move up the ranks, had "not helped", and practical organisational change was necessary.

"We have been focusing on the wrong things, diversity training, when we know that that doesn't mean much.

"We need structural change – to examine procedures such as how do we advertise, how do we evaluate people, promote people and perform appraisals – to start closing some of those gaps."

She said informing managers of their promotional track record, including gender promotion ratios, and telling managers how many men and women they have promoted in the last five years compared with the available pool, was necessary to highlight and address unconscious bias or "inadvertent favouring of people who look like me (the manager)."

Reasons women leave work and struggle to return, exposing them to potential financial insecurity in mid-life or lack of adequate superannuation,  also needed to be better examined, and women's ability to remain engaged securely in work after having children could be enhanced if men became more engaged in the home.

"We are trying to unpack the black box of the home; people only have 24 hours in a day, and even if work is flexible, we know women still do the lion’s share of care work and home work.

"Gender equality will not be a reality unless or until men also share in the burden of the work at home.  We have to … create opportunities for men to find out what it would feel like to be (a more available) dad or care-giver."

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