Flexi-working for women: A blessing or a career curse?

Flexible working is the job benefit of choice for many people – particularly women. There are a number of historical stigmas attached to this way of working, but the events of the past 15 months have seen a positive shift for both sexes. Yet while it can go some way in boosting your lifestyle, could it end up being detrimental to your finances?

Overview:

  • As a woman, you stand to benefit from part-time or flexible working, such as striking a better home–work life balance or being able to better care for family members without having to forfeit your career. On the other hand, working part-time or fewer hours might affect your earnings and long-term wealth, not to mention having an impact on your position in the labour market.
  • The emergence of COVID-19 has seen a staggering shift to home working, meaning that both men and women can now appreciate the many benefits of flexible working.
  • Our team of Wellesley financial advisers are here to help you comprehend the knock-on effect of flexible working on your finances as well as your retirement plans.

Part-time or flexible working is a blessing for many women in so many ways. Not only can it help us balance childcare and other caring commitments, but it can also provide some extra ‘breathing space’ in our hectic schedules.

Working reduced hours can undoubtedly make life easier, and yet it potentially won’t do your career – or your finances – any favours. Educational charity The Female Lead flags the ‘flexibility penalty’ – in other words, the price both full- and part-time working women pay for having a level of freedom in their working schedule.

The price of flexibility

As time goes on, any reduction in your working hours will probably have a marked impact on your earnings and your longer term wealth. For instance, according to AJ Bell, two years’ maternity leave will reduce the average woman’s pension by £25,500.1

And the problem goes further than reduced hours or career breaks. Most career progression (read earnings growth) comes about following a change to a new and better-paid job. However, once you’re taking the flexible route, it’s said that career advancement can get trickier. For example, some women are concerned that they’ll miss out on the flexibility they’ve earned if they switch employers, while others feel so indebted that they’re less inclined to push for pay rises – perhaps viewing the flexibility as an alternative to earning more money.

There are several reasons why women might need flexibility at work – the most obvious one being childcare. Yet many need to take time out to look after elderly relatives, too. There are also those taboos that we often avoid talking about.

For example, lots of women suffer from painful periods, with around 14% consequently needing to take time off work, according to a study in the BMJ.3 And this only worsens with age: 94% of menopausal women report that their symptoms have had a detrimental effect on their work, and 51% have said they have had to cut down their hours as a result.4

Is stigma a stain?

Whatever the reason for flexible working, it undeniably has a stigma attached, which might explain why men have historically been much less likely to work in this way.

For example, the shared parental leave scheme enables fathers to take time out of work in their baby’s first year – yet according to HMRC figures, just 2% of eligible couples are taking advantage of this.5

In some working environments, starting work late after your child’s school assembly can be perceived to be a lack of commitment, while working from home has long been associated with the opportunity to have a pyjama day and monitor emails from the comfort of your sofa.

Yet on a positive note, in light of the events of the past 15 months, such stigmas are starting to dissipate. The coronavirus has meant that the majority of office workers have had no option other than to set up home offices, be it at the kitchen table or even on their beds. We’ve done whatever we’ve had to do, and proved that business doesn’t has to suffer as a result.

The new normal?

Families across the country are now enjoying the lifestyle benefits of this new way of working. More fathers are managing the school run, while dogs are revelling in long, leisurely strolls rather than rushed walks around the block. Women are reaping the benefits too – no longer needing to have that awkward phone call with their boss about working from home due to menstrual cramps or because their night sweats made for a poor night’s sleep.

Remote working has improved our career opportunities, too – after all, if you don’t need to commute, you’re able to apply for jobs in any part of the UK.

But for all the many benefits, there’s nevertheless a risk that more flexible working could be a sting in the tail and increase the demands on women. For instance, it can be much harder to establish clear boundaries around the start and end times of your working day.

For all the long dog walks and lunchtime yoga classes that can now be shoehorned into our schedule, how many evenings or Sunday afternoons are spent checking emails? And as for the time you’re saving on the commute, is it being spent on boosting your well-being or do you find yourself working a longer day?

Flexibility can help support women – no two ways about it – and the new normal means that it’s less likely to cast a curse on career progression or earnings. However, it also calls for employers to respect the needs and well-being of their staff and for women to discern the true value they bring to the business to make a flexible working arrangement a success.

If you’re curious to learn more about the effect flexibility can have on your finances or retirement planning, arrange an appointment with your Wellesley financial adviser – they can assess your position and help you make a success story of this new – and more widely accepted – way of working.

Sources:

1 AJ Bell, Gender pension gap – the cost of maternity leave and career breaks, February 2019
2 BMJ, Productivity loss due to menstruation-related symptoms: a nationwide cross-sectional survey among 32,748 women, June 2019
3 Newson Health, Menopause at work: a survey to look at the impact of menopausal and perimenopausal symptoms upon women in the workplace, 1132 women surveyed, July 2019
4 EMW, Use of shared parental leave increased by 23% last year – but still only 13,100 couples used the scheme, September 2020

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