Enough of the desk police

We are utterly wrong and misinformed to shame those that embrace flexible working so they feel they must sneak out of the office, writes Catherine Fox.

Waiting for the lift at 5.30pm, bag over her shoulder, a woman leaving the office and on her way to pick up her two small children from childcare runs into a group of colleagues. One of the group, a male manager, tells her how lucky she is to have earned an early mark, triggering a wave of laughter from observers.

Embarrassed and demoralised, the woman rushes off to pick up her kids, before facing what’s become known as the second shift: the caring and domestic work that still falls mostly on Australian women’s shoulders.

Making an exit like this has become known as the corporate “walk of shame”. In fact, so many women have routinely faced demeaning or passive-aggressive comments about leaving their workplaces to juggle their parenting demands – no matter how efficient their output – that they’ve had to develop strategies such as leaving their coat on the back of their chair to make it look like they haven’t clocked off for the day.

There’s no doubt flexible work policies are much more common now than just a few years ago. But attitudes are much slower to change. In theory, at least, flexible work is an option for men and women, but statistics show women still make up the vast majority of flexible workers in this country (nearly 70 per cent of part-time employees are female, with 21 per cent of women in the workforce in part-time roles compared to 9 per cent of men (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, Quarterly, Feb 2015).


Women in Australia continue to do the majority of caring and housework regardless of how many hours they spend in paid work. In households where men and women earn about the same, men work on average 43 hours compared to women who work 36 hours. But men do 28.3 hours a week of housework and childcare compared to women who do nearly 57 hours (The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, June 2014).

In fact, the use of flexible options which can include part-time, job sharing and extra unpaid leave, is so often accessed by women with kids that it’s known as the “mummy track”.

Many studies have shown that taking a different path to accommodate family responsibilities can act as a career derailer, often leading to a perception of lower motivation and commitment, resulting in fewer development opportunities and slower progression.

This well-documented outcome is also called the “maternal wall” by American academic Joan Williams. Women who have been very successful may suddenly find their proficiency questioned once they become pregnant, take maternity leave, or adopt flexible work schedules, she wrote in her 2004 paper “The Maternal Wall” for the Harvard Business Review.

“Their performance evaluations may plummet and their political support evaporate. The ‘family gap’ yawns: An increasing percentage of the wage gap between men and women is attributable to motherhood.”

There’s little evidence for these ideas about poor performance by mothers. In fact, a study in 2013 by Ernst & Young (Untapped Opportunity: The role of women in unlocking Australia’s productivity potential) found women in flexible roles (part-time, contract or casual) appear to be the most productive workers.

Women in flexible roles waste only 11.1 per cent of their time compared to an average of 14.5 per cent for the rest of the working population, according to the report. Employers could save at least $1.4 billion on wasted wages by employing more productive female employees in flexible roles.

So the career and remuneration penalties for mothers represent a very high price to pay, particularly when they may already be facing strong social norms that favour a male breadwinner model. There’s a real need for a concerted effort to educate and broaden the definition of workplace flexibility, and to counter the lingering sense that somehow, flexible workers are getting away with it and leaving others to pick up the slack.

As long as we hold onto rigid ideas about what a “serious worker” looks like, and how many hours are needed at the desk, these impressions remain hard to change. They act as a brake on normalising different ways of working for women, men and all age groups.

And reinforcing traditional biases about the value and legitimacy of employees – particularly mothers – who don’t conform to a standard model is a key impediment to change. Making fun of colleagues that step outside the accepted boundaries while implying they are slacking off is not just inaccurate but bolsters the myth that only full-time is full commitment.

Enough of the comments about the time a colleague leaves the office, even if it’s defended as “just joking”. Results are what matters in the workplace, not how they are achieved. In an era when technology means many of us can work anywhere and anytime, policing hours at the desk is about as relevant as a bundy clock.