Are Flexible Jobs Just A Fantasy We Promise Working Mums?

Work-life balance & career success are rarely compatible.

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In the four years since I became a mother, I’ve had about six different working situations. First, there was the fact I had no job when my daughter, Lucy, was born. During my pregnancy, I had been working as an hourly contractor for a big company. The department head said they would be happy to let me come back to my position after I took (unpaid) leave but, due to budget constrictions, they would have to cut my rate by 30%. Then there was the traditional corporate job I applied for when Lucy was seven months old. That winter, as she and I traded illnesses, I realised that the lack of flexibility the company offered meant I simply couldn’t perform to their standards. I had to quit. Since then, I've had a variety of short-term consulting contracts, which didn’t offer benefits but did offer flexibility.
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Today, I’m still figuring things out — and I now know it will always be a juggling act. Sure, now my daughter doesn’t get sick as often due to daycare germs, but there are random days off from school. For example, we live in New Jersey, where schools are closed for a full week in November (nope, not even around Thanksgiving). I want a job where I can give my all — but I also need to work for a company that understands regularly working until 8pm every evening just isn’t feasible.
Of course, this is a problem facing scores of parents who are struggling to manage their families and their work. And while some have found flexible schedules that allow them appropriate compensation and advancement, others have experienced stalled careers, inflexible managers, and a precarious balancing act that force them to weigh family against job advancement.
"When I was on maternity leave, I made the case for working from home two days a week," says Caroline, a thirtysomething account director for a marketing and publicity firm who does not want her full name used. "But what I found, in reality, was that I was iced out. My daughter was in daycare, so if anything, I had more hours on my work-from-home days to work, since I didn’t commute. But I wouldn’t get invited to meetings, or I would call in and would be spoken over in conversations." Caroline says that even when she made the decision to head back to the office on a five-day schedule, she felt unfairly maligned for the flexible arrangement she had previously made. "I wouldn’t be invited to client dinners or drinks, since the assumption was that I needed to be home. The reality was that I could have gone. It was as if I was being punished for having dared ask for flexibility." Caroline ended up leaving the firm and finding a new company that was a better match.
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In reality, I found I was iced out. I wouldn’t get invited to meetings, or I would call in and would be spoken over in conversations.

Caroline, account director
Part of the reason flexibility can be such a minefield is that what a company promises regarding flexibility may not reflect the actual workplace culture. One Harvard Business Review analysis found that even companies that offer flexible schedules may have a bias when it comes to those schedules actually being implemented. This "fake flex" culture — a company that offers unlimited vacation but discourages employees from using it, for example — can be especially insidious for working parents.
"One thing I always advise people to do during a job interview is ask how many people don’t take time off," says Katharine Zaleski, cofounder of Power to Fly, a platform that connects Fortune 500 companies and startups to female and minority jobseekers. "That puts the company on the spot, and you can tell pretty quickly whether flexibility is in name only."
Illustrated by Tristan Offit
Larger companies often offer "on-ramps" for parents coming back from maternity leave, with a structure in place to help employees navigate flexible schedules. For example, Vicki, 37, an attorney in the Northeast, worked for a law firm that offered associates the option to downshift their work to a certain percentage. Vicki chose 80%, which kept her on a promotion and pro-rated bonus track. "I really liked that there was a system in place, and I talked about the logistics a lot with my mentor and other people who were on a flexible schedule," says Vicki. While 80% didn’t necessarily mean shorter hours — she still regularly worked from 9 to 7 — it did allow her to turn down work and travel, citing 80% as the reasoning.
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At the end of a year, though, Vicki shifted back to 100%. "I was realistically doing 100% of my job, but in the beginning, the 80% gave me more mental flexibility than anything." Working fewer hours did have an impact on her compensation, which was down about $60,000 (£45,000) from her 100% schedule. She was also nervous that if she kept that schedule, she might be overlooked for promotion opportunities. "It’s just a fact in the legal field that people who are billing the most hours are going to move faster on the promotion track," she says.
Vicki says men took advantage of the percentage structure as well, and she’s glad that there was a system in place. In fact, the firm’s reputation as one that was flexible and fair to working parents partially drew her to the job, even though she was years away from having a child when she first started working.

It’s just a fact in the legal field that people who are billing the most hours are going to move faster on the promotion track.

Vicki, attorney
This can be a smart strategy, says Lisa Skeete Tatum, founder and CEO of Landit, a talent management platform and career coaching tool for businesses and individuals. "Research the policies a company already has in place to know if flexible schedules are a core value — or if you will be a trailblazer." If you are going to be a trailblazer, be sure to make the case for how a flexible arrangement will benefit the company as well as yourself.
"Explain that when you work from home, you’ll actually be online an hour earlier since you won’t be commuting," explains Zaleski. It’s also important to show that you can be flexible for the company as well. "Maybe flexibility means a lower hour week during downtime, but they can depend on you to crank up your hours when you’re working on a client deadline."
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But it’s equally important to assess your own wants and needs. Whether it’s needing the flexibility to pick up your child by 5.30pm or wanting the space to take a sick day with your feverish 4-year-old without panicking, being clear with yourself on why you want flexibility and how the flexible time will affect your work is key, says Colleen Curtis, head of marketing and community at The Mom Project, a talent platform focused on connecting parents to work opportunities. "Take some time to sit down and get clear on your own personal priorities and let that guide your renewed career focus. Establishing what type of role and structure really works for you and your family will help you drive conversations around it with clear intent and purpose."
That’s what Eileen, a 32-year-old training manager at a New York City consulting firm, did as she struggled with pumping and nursing while returning to work. "I was trying to pump, which took forever. Nursing was much faster than pumping. With my manager's approval, I decided to work a shortened day, which meant I would do one pump session and then go home to be with my baby." While she would log back on in the afternoon, this arrangement meant that Eileen had to shuffle her work responsibilities — which she knows is a luxury not everyone can have. "At that point, I’d been at the company for five years. We were also shifting our team and had an opening, which we could fill with a person who could take on the travel assignments that had previously been mine." While her compensation didn’t suffer — during a post-maternity leave period where she was taking off on Wednesdays as well as working reduced office hours, she used PTO hours rather than officially cut back her hours and thereby lower her salary — she does have mixed feelings about her new work normal. "I'm sad not to run as many in-person programmes because I do love them, but that was very much my choice to shift my responsibilities to topics that are more flexible."
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I'm sad not to run as many in-person programmes because I do love them, but that was very much my choice to shift my responsibilities to topics that are more flexible.

Eileen, training manager
While juggling work and motherhood can be stressful, those who’ve successfully lobbied for flexible schedules have found that they allow them to succeed at work — and feel less stressed when they’re at home. So how can you make the case for it — without docking your pay?
"Flexibility doesn’t equal not getting the job done," notes Tatum. "I personally find that those of us that have personal priorities actually get more things done because we are highly focused, prioritise well out of necessity, and are committed to delivering the highest value priorities." Knowing what you bring to the table — and how much you accomplish, regardless of the hours worked — can help you set up a system that’s fair to you and your employer. Talking with other parents (dads, too) and asking how they’ve done it can also be key, says Vicki, the attorney.
Finally, know that the key to flexible work is remaining, well, flexible. There will always be emergencies at work. There will always be outbreaks of hand, foot, mouth at daycare. And there will always be times you feel overwhelmed. "Although it’s challenging — and the guilt may always be there — you can be present for your family and still crush it at work," says Tatum. "My tip is to schedule yourself first, then your key family and personal events, and work will fill in everything else. It’s a more intentional and fulfilling way to manage all aspects of our lives."
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