Flexibility can stretch just so far

March 25, 2005

Over the past few weeks, you have published two articles cataloguing the stresses and perceived injustices suffered by staff trying to balance their working lives and their home commitments ("Bundle of joy spells bundle of trouble", February 18, and "Pressure too much?", March 18). Juggling the two is never easy for most people, but I was struck by how often those interviewed were prepared to brand their employer "inflexible" and how frequently they avoided taking any responsibility for their own actions, or lack of them.

To take the hardest case first: how flexible should an employer be when faced with a member of staff who requires time off to take care of a sick spouse or child? Most employers and colleagues would, I hope, be compassionate and flexible and allow the carer a reasonable amount of time off.

What is reasonable? A couple of days? A week? A month? A semester? How far does compassion stretch - until the system forces you to "decide between post and husband", as your report had it? How cruel. But how fair is it to expect colleagues and students to be eternally compassionate because a member of staff cannot bring herself to take a terrible decision?

But what of those staff whose life/work predicament is a result of decisions they have made rather than of a personal catastrophe? You quote one outraged working mother saying: "(Management's) attitude is, 'If you want part-time, then you manage the consequences of that - that's it: you manage it'."

Frankly, I am outraged that she is outraged. Her employer has obviously been flexible because she has been allowed to go part time. But why should she not manage the consequences of her decision? Less time to do an equal amount of work means less work done, the same amount done less well or, as is usually the case in most departments, someone else having to do the work.

A male sociologist complains that he was told that his request to go part time "signified a lack of commitment". What did he expect? He has made a perfectly reasonable decision to reorder his priorities. And his employers have reached the equally reasonable conclusion that he is devoting less of his energies to work to spend more time with his family.

These middle-class martyrs should realise that one cannot have it all, that opting for something usually means forgoing something else, that demanding flexibility from employers generally results in hard-pressed colleagues doing more, and that women who make increasingly strident demands for special treatment end up undermining our case for equal treatment.

Emma Castle

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