It had just occurred to me that my kids didn’t have enough fruit, bread and milk to get through the next few days. It occurred to me I hadn’t completed my daughter’s after school care form, or RSVPed to a 2nd birthday party… and I was already two days late. It occurred to me there were two in-law family birthdays coming up and I needed to order politically correct gifts of equal value, both real and perceived. It occurred to me I hadn’t advised my landlord that one of our living room lights caught fire last night. And it occurred to me I hadn’t touched base with a friend of mine for a while… a friend who had recently lost her daughter to a rare illness.
Yes, during my lunch ‘break’, my mind was exactly like the browser window before me… full of multiple ideas and priorities, competing. Which of course I had to try and balance… like so many other Mums.
Of course, my young colleagues behind me didn’t see this. What they saw was me internet shopping and sending personal emails… in my lunch break mind you… but that didn’t matter. I obviously didn’t take my career seriously, because otherwise I’d be working through… or joining them to prove my intelligence through the daily crossword. But I was merely busy, not deaf, so I could hear what they muttered. Even if I couldn’t hear the words, their judgement burned into the back of my skull.
Then I read an interesting article on how not only do we have the difficulty of getting women in tech… but retaining them. And this was, in part, due to the ‘culture of hours’ and the ‘flexibility stigma’.
In short, ‘the culture of hours’ is more about competition than productivity. He/she who stays the longest after a standard working day is the most effective… thus the better worker. The ‘flexibility stigma’ is slightly more insidious. We all know flexible working hour policies look great on paper. But the reality is it’s women who mostly utilise them. Even women in the tech sector, where there are so few of us already. And we are joined by our sisters in the law and architecture fields.
I still recall one of my friends who resigned herself that after her second child, she would not be made a partner at her law firm until she worked ‘full time’. It didn’t matter that after school pickup and after the kids were asleep she was on her computer every night for another four hours. Her ‘part time’ days of 5 hours actually saw her working 12 hour days, every day. But that’s not what her colleagues saw. It was merely perceived she worked ‘half days’ and had her ‘afternoons off.’ Her experience to me was the first indication of the disparity between the on paper ‘family friendly workplace’ and the harsh reality.
The disappointing thing is, when women do use this flexibility, I’ve seen colleagues take advantage of it. One team member would wait for our Manager to leave at 2.00 for their school pickup… then they would disappear an hour later. I had no problems with this, until I saw their hours sheet left on our Manager’s desk. The person always wrote that they had done a full working day ending at 4.30. I didn’t say anything… maybe had an agreement in place with our Manager I wasn’t aware of? But then I learnt they were making comments to our senior Manager if I took a long lunch break. Of course, they were never around long enough to see I made the time up by staying later. Although, at that point, I didn’t have a school aged family to collect, apparently using a longer lunch hour to do the Mummy admin still made me a member of the flexibility stigma club.
But it’s the ‘culture of hours’ which really irritates me. And I think this is what women truly fear when re-entering the workforce. It’s the pressure to stay late just so you can be the last one the boss sees when they leave the office, giving you an appreciative nod goodnight for being such a hard worker. Or having to deal with the daily guilt that by leaving ‘early’ you are somehow not there for your team… or your career. Seldom do people consider that the part-timers often work more effectively and multitask exceptionally well in order to accomplish the same amount of work in half the time.
If we want to encourage women to join and stay in male dominated professions, we need to rethink our notions and attitudes towards time itself.
We need to remember flexible working hours does not automatically equate to ‘free time.’ Some will use it in the role as Mum or Dad to assist their families. Some will take it to try to get, or keep, their health on track. Others will use it to be a part-time carer to their aging parents.
Regardless of the motivation, flexible time should mean we no longer have to feel guilt going against the ‘culture of hours’ or be afraid of a workplace stigma. Until the negativity around flexible time can be dispelled, I don’t believe it can truly exist or be utilised effectively. Instead, maybe we should consider that time – all time – can be tailored and individualised.
Tailored Time – Now I’d like to see what comes out of that innovation.