Older mother and daughter spending time together at home drinking coffee and discussing
Family-forward policies are so little-used that in many organisations they are dubbed 'ghost benefits' © Getty

The United Nations reported in June that no country is on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. Research by McKinsey and LeanIn.org finds that, though companies say they are committed to gender equality, “progress isn’t just slow, it’s stalled”.

Earlier this month, at the International Association for Time Use Research conference, several studies found that women spend twice as much time as men doing housework and childcare, even though the majority are also in the workforce — a statistic that has not budged in a decade.

Some countries and many companies have sought to close these gendered gaps by offering supportive policies such as paid family leave, subsidised, high-quality child care, and giving workers more control over time, manner and place of work. These are a critical start. But policies will never be enough: workplace cultures have to change.

A recent study of management consultants found they had access to flexible schedules and a host of benefits that most low and middle-wage earners only dream of. Yet few people used the benefits. Family-forward policies are so little-used that in many organisations they are dubbed “ghost benefits”. One consultant even refused to use the firm’s flexible paid leave policy to visit her father on his deathbed.

Why? Because they had bought into the myth that the only way to succeed is to work all-out, all the time — family, health and quality of life be damned. It is a work style that few with caregiving responsibilities — mostly women — can match or maintain.

So what can organisations do? Firstly, have good policies and processes in place — perform pay equity audits, revamp metrics and cultures that reward long hours and presence and focus instead on deliverables, performance, diversity, equity, inclusion and work-life balance as business imperatives.

But to ensure these policies stick, here are three strategies to change workplace culture:

1. Be a role model and share your story. Leaders set the tone for the organisation, so stop sending late night and weekend emails, and expecting workers to be on call at all hours. Talk openly about your lives, families and hobbies outside work and take holiday. Use and encourage others to take advantage of family-forward policies such as paid family leave. Take care of your health to prevent burnout. Set up mentoring and sponsoring programmes. Pioneering role models and peers, behavioural science research shows, willing to make real change to support working families are critical in transforming cultures. Share what is working. And know that others are starting to watch.

2. Train managers and hold them accountable. Research has found that training supervisors how to support workers with family responsibilities and teaching teams to work flexibly has led to improvements in sleep, lowered blood pressure and cardiovascular risk, increased job satisfaction, reduced turnover intention and reduced work-family stress. And the benefits extend to children and families as well. Work-related stress accounts for $190bn in US healthcare costs every year.

3. Banish the “mommy track” and set family friendly policies as the default. When the law firm White & Case began offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave in 2018, employees had to opt out if they did not want to take the offer. “We were very explicit in our guidance to the partners and leadership, that this is people’s right to take, therefore, it’s theirs to manage,” Jennifer Philpot, chief people officer, says. “That helped change the mindset. Managers could no longer say that people couldn’t take leave. They couldn’t say, ‘Now is not a good time’.”

Managers were given training and guidelines. (Do treat men and women equally. Do not imply that use of parental leave will be a detriment to careers.) It took 18 months and meetings with 50 stakeholders for everyone to buy in. In 2018, 35 women and 34 men used the leave.

Some staff grumbled. But David Koschik, an influential executive committee member, spoke up at a meeting, saying: “In the legal industry, we cannot expect to make significant strides in the advancement of women until we give men the same opportunity to take responsibility as parents.” Ms Philpot says that his intervention swayed the doubters.

When everyone has more control over their schedules, or takes paid leave to care for themselves or others, when work-life balance becomes a performance metric for better work, productivity and better health, then women and those with family responsibilities will no longer be stigmatised and we’ll be on the road to creating truly equitable workplaces.

The writer is director of the Better Life Lab at New America, and author of ‘Overwhelmed’

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