Professor Sara Connolly and Dr Matthew Aldrich from the University of East Anglia share findings from recent research into gender perceptions and uptake of flexible working arrangements.

In the wake of the pandemic and the lockdowns that have impacted on our lives, those of us lucky enough to still be in work have had to find different means to balance our home life and working commitments. Huge numbers switched to home working – in June, 49% us did so – and with schools and nurseries closed and limits on household mixing, many people had no access to care support for children and dependents. Staggered hours, tag-team parenting, unsociable working hours and part-time working became the norm, with many of us finding any way we could to juggle caring responsibilities with work. However, the burden of caring responsibilities was not equally distributed, with women bearing a much greater share of caring responsibilities than men, and particularly amongst those with young children. Research carried out by Dr Matthew Aldrich and Professor Sara Connolly pre-pandemic shows this to be unsurprising, finding that perceived access to Flexible Working Arrangements (FWAs) is gendered, especially in the case of options for hours reduction.

All employees who have worked for a company for more than 6 months have a right to request flexible working. However, our research finds that 30% of fathers and 10% of mothers are unaware that such working arrangements are available. This is not due to differences in job characteristics, such as occupation or sector that mothers and fathers work in, but because of gendered perceptions about working practices. This leads to differences in take-up and use of flexible working arrangements, resulting in women taking on the majority of caring responsibilities, reinforcing gender roles and generating stark parental pay gaps.

There is very little research that focuses on fathers’ access to and use of FWAs, but our findings reveal some interesting disparities when it comes to the types of flexible working that men and women perceive to be available. Whereas there aren’t any gender differences in perceived access to working from home – seen as the ‘ultimate’ form of flexible working by many and requiring the highest levels of trust by the employer – forms of working arrangement involving hours reduction are much more likely to be available to mothers than fathers. For part-time, term-time only and job share working arrangements, mothers are twice as likely to report access to these FWAs as fathers are. Hours reduction arrangements naturally come with a reduction in income and experience, crucial for career development and access to promotion opportunities. If men are less aware of such options, and less likely to use them, then all it does is to reinforce stereotyped gender roles in the labour market and at home. This has an impact on children, too; paternal involvement in the care of young children has positive effects on child development, and makes it more likely that parents will share caring responsibilities throughout childhood.

Our research also finds that socioeconomic factors, such as education and job characteristics, affect whether fathers have access to FWAs or not, contributing to existing intersectional inequalities in work-life balance support. Those who are less educated, in lower-skilled jobs or without a union presence in the workplace are less likely to have access to FWAs. Workplace culture also has an effect, with fathers working in a gender-balanced workforce being more likely to have access than those working in male-dominated or female-dominated industries.

Work-family policy in the UK should do more to promote the availability and benefits of FWAs to employers and employees, and break the negative stereotypes around hours reduction for men in particular. This will benefit everyone involved, improving men’s work-life balance and involvement with child-raising, women’s labour market opportunities and job quality, and the child-parent relationships. The shock of the pandemic and forced move to more flexible working has certainly improved awareness of possibilities for flexible working in practice, and this should feed through to an awareness of rights to FWAs and perhaps an increase in uptake as well. One would hope that this can lead to a more gender-equal use of time in the home too, but the evidence on unequal sharing of childcare during the pandemic shows that this is still a work in progress.

Dr Matthew Aldrich is an Associate Professor in Microeconomics at the University of East Anglia. His research includes the changing nature of work roles in families.