Is flexible working holding back women’s careers?

The way universities perceive and handle flexible hours is an area for improvement, says a joint report by employers and unions

July 23, 2015
German contortionist Dorita reading book
Source: Getty
Flexible workers: ‘just as employable and worthy of promotion’

Letting people work hours that help them juggle childcare and professional commitments would seem like an unqualified good for university staff.

But flexible working can also be a “double-edged sword”, with adverse consequences on women’s long-term career prospects, a major new study has warned.

In a report published last week, the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff’s working group on gender pay says there is a “misperception of the value of flexible workers” at some institutions that meant that “some individuals…could be seen as less promotable because they work flexibly”.

That harmful view is more likely to affect women than men, says the group, which included representatives from universities, trade unions and the Equality Challenge Unit.

New arrangements that allow couples to share parental leave, which came into effect in April, may start to “redistribute the caring responsibilities between men and women” and “shift the accompanying perceptions of the value to organisations of those who work flexibly”, the report suggests.

But more must be done to promote the wider benefits of flexible working for universities as well as staff, according to Donna Rowe-Merriman, senior national officer for education at Unison, which leads the trade union involvement in the working group.

“We need to challenge the perception that someone on flexible hours is getting a ‘perk’ – they are just as employable and worthy of promotion,” said Ms Rowe-Merriman.

“In fact, greater use of flexible working leads to greater productivity and a more motivated workforce,” she said.

Studies show that both men and women benefit from the availability of flexible working, reducing stress levels at work, Ms Rowe-Merriman adds.

Of course, some department heads may reasonably argue that flexible hours are not always possible.

If an academic wishes to go part-time, it may not always be easy to find someone qualified and willing to take on the remainder of their workload, with the extra duties likely to be shared across existing staff instead.

In one case highlighted in the report, one female academic at a large pre-1992 university was told she might not get her full-time job back if she opted to work part-time for two years.

She eventually took a two-year career break so she could return full-time, which union officials argued was “bizarre” as she would fall further behind on her research and teaching.

Universities should look at the wider positives of flexible working, said Ms Rowe-Merriman.

“One person’s flexible working can be another person’s job opportunity,” she said, adding that short-term secondments can prove invaluable to early career staff.

Many of the sector’s good policies around flexible working are detailed in the JNCHES report, which also illustrates how universities support women returning from maternity leave to re-establish their research, and details other efforts to close the gender pay gap.

Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton, who chaired the group, said that while “universities alone cannot solve this complex issue”, he wanted to highlight “good practice from across the university sector and to encourage further positive change”.

In this same vein, unions have called for all universities to undertake equal pay audits every two years.

According to the report, a JNCHES equal pay review survey in 2013 showed "31 HEIs had not conducted an equal pay review since 2010 and of these seven said they had never conducted one", although "all seven of these HEIs did publish their equality objectives".

Ms Rowe-Merriman said: “Given this is a statutory requirement in Scotland, it shows there are a lot of English universities who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the problem, let alone do anything about it.”


Richard Trembath has been appointed executive dean of the Faculty of Life Science and Medicine at King’s College London. Professor Trembath has substantial academic leadership experience and joins King’s from Queen Mary University of London where he is currently vice-principal for health and executive dean of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. He takes up his new post in September.

The University of the West of Scotland has awarded social scientist Chik Collins a personal professorship. Professor Collins played a key role in the partnership between the university and Oxfam Scotland, launched in 2012. Promotion to the level of personal professor is available “to those able to demonstrate an established international reputation in respect of learning and teaching, research and knowledge transfer, or contribution to the wider mission of the university, or a combination of these”.

Melanie Currie has been named associate dean of Nottingham Trent University’s business school, with a focus on developing its international reputation. Ms Currie was previously head of undergraduate programmes at the school.

Leading archaeologist, lecturer and television presenter Carenza Lewis is to join the University of Lincoln as professor of public understanding of research. She joins from the University of Cambridge and will take up her position in September.

The University of Bath has announced the appointments of Jonathan Knight and Peter Lambert as pro vice-chancellors of research and of learning and teaching, respectively. Professor Knight is currently associate dean for research in the Faculty of Science and Professor Lambert is currently associate dean (learning and teaching) in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs