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Home Opinion The ‘flexibility’ misnomer
Women • Caring • Productivity

The ‘flexibility’ misnomer

Judith Warner - 09 April 2015

The preoccupation with ‘flexible working’ as the answer to women’s needs in the workplace can be exploited by employers. The argument must be had on new terms

‘Flexibility’ is a slippery word. In the lexicon of human resources managers, women’s advocates, and employers seeking to stop the brain drain of highly qualified female professionals who jump ship when they have children, it has long meant giving employees a greater range of choices in how, when and where they do their work.

But lately, in the mouths of business-friendly conservatives in the United States, it has meant quite the opposite: a way to give employers enhanced rights to cut labour costs by deciding when and whether to keep employees on the clock.

Case in point: the Family Friendly and Workplace Flexibility Act, reintroduced in the US Senate by Republican lawmakers last month. Despite its impossible syntax, the bill’s ultimate intent couldn’t be clearer: it would permit private sector employers to compensate employees who work overtime with paid time off instead of paid time-and-a-half. Proponents insist that such new employee ‘choice’ would promote both family togetherness and basic fairness; public sector workers, they point out, are currently covered by similar regulations. But the government’s unique overtime-for-comp-time trade-in provision was instituted in 1985 purely as a cost-cutting measure. At a time when most families are struggling simply to make ends meet, the likelihood that workers would ‘choose’ to earn less money (in exchange for time off that’s scheduled at the employer’s convenience) is simply not all that great.

In the US, there are no federal regulations requiring employers to offer such basic benefits as paid sick days, vacation time, or paid leave. There is no statutory right to request a reduced work schedule or other flexible arrangements, and no federal laws guaranteeing hourly workers a minimum number of paid hours per week or even minimal compensation for those who show up for work only to be sent home. In such a context, the meaning of ‘flexibility’ depends largely upon who wields the power to define it. And that power is largely determined by income. While more than 90 percent of high-wage workers are currently able to earn paid time off or change their schedules if they have an urgent family issue, less than half of private-sector workers in the bottom quartile of earners can change their schedules under such circumstances. (And only about half of middle-income workers have access to that sort of flexibility, too.)

What less fortunate workers do routinely have access to is unpredictability and lack of control: last-minute work assignments, unplanned, required overtime, ‘just-in-time scheduling’, where managers may decide, on an hour-to-hour basis, whether customer demand is enough to justify an employee’s presence, and the pervasive practice of being put ‘on call’ – where employees must commit to being available for a given shift without any guarantee that they will actually be called into work. In 2009, a study of one major US retailer found that 59 per cent of full-time hourly workers saw their days or shift hours regularly fluctuate week-to-week. Another survey, published in 2011, showed approximately 50 per cent of low-wage hourly workers reporting having limited control over their work hours.

The predictable economic and stress-related damage the latter sort of ‘flex’ does to workers’  lives has led many progressive advocates to view the fight for workplace flexibility as blindly elitist, and irrelevant – if not inimical – to the needs of the vast majority of working families. Leading researchers and workplace policy innovators have been forced to admit too that, even for the most economically empowered women, flexibility policies have been a mixed blessing. While they have helped some women better reconcile work and family, they have largely failed in their goal of helping highly educated and skilled women – that upper income bracket – climb to the very top.

Straight-out gender bias, researchers like Joan Williams, Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, have argued, has been replaced by a ‘flexibility stigma’ that casts aspersion on and exacts a financial cost from those who make use of it, men as well as women. What we really need, many longtime experts in women’s workplace issues now say, is a deeper cultural change in attitudes regarding the nature of work and the characteristics of good workers. We are used to discussing that sort of attitude change when puzzling out the enduring problem of executive women stuck beneath the ‘glass ceiling’. But, as Susan Lambert, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago has argued, in order to improve the working conditions of low-income women whose lives are perennially destabilised by employer-driven ‘flexibility’, we are going to need a meaningful culture shift, too. “Legislative change is unlikely to occur unless there is a boost in the public’s view of the relative importance of labour versus capital and – most essential to the focus here – in its view of the relative importance of workers who labour at the front lines of firms”, she wrote last year. It is, she concluded, a question of changing “societal norms”.

The language of ‘flexibility’ – so long understood as a way of talking about professional women and their unique problems of work-family ‘balance’ – may now be getting in the way of that kind of deep cultural change. A new and forward-looking discussion about the workplaces of today, in which younger generations of men and women increasingly both express the desire and the need to combine work with family caregiving, may require a different vocabulary.  Talking about ‘family friendly’ scheduling, or ‘scheduling for real life’, for example, would broaden the conversation beyond talk of the sort of ‘flex’ time relevant to professionals: it would, by necessity include discussion of the kind of predictable scheduling required, say, to make decent child care arrangements stick, and the kind of stability of paid hours needed to keep working families afloat. It would shift the conversation away from women and their outside-the-norm needs (‘flexibility’ long having been branded a ‘women’s issue’ in the public mind) and move children closer to the center of public concern.

Embraced as a right-thinking business goal (like paper recycling, or smoking cessation programmes) language that embraced the fact that workers have – and deserve to have – outside family lives would also serve a normative purpose, conveying that the sort of connected family time we routinely celebrate is, in fact, a social good and should be a broadly-shared entitlement.

Judith Warner is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress

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