Want to Motivate Women to Advance? Offer Flex Time

Despite a recent push by some high-profile companies to rein in flexible working arrangements, a large majority of high potential employees report working for firms that offer some kind of flex option.

In addition to showing that 81 percent of high potentials say their current employer offers a flexible work option, the April 2013 study by nonprofit research firm Catalyst shows that offering flex work actually influences workers’ career aspirations to advance up the leadership pipeline, especially among women.

Roughly 83 percent of female high potentials with access to flex work reported aspiring to the C-suite level, according to the Catalyst study. However, just 54 percent of female high potentials without flex work access reported the same leadership aspiration — a gap of nearly 30 percent.

For men, 94 percent with access to a flexible work option reported aspiring to the senior executive or CEO level, while 85 percent without access reported a similar sentiment, according to the study. Additionally, women working at firms without flexible work options were more than twice as likely to “downsize their career aspirations” compared to men.

The study of 726 MBA graduates working full time in both for-profit and nonprofit firms across industries defines flex work in one of six ways: flexible arrival and departure; flexibility when work is done during the week; telecommuting; compressed work week; reduced or part-time work; and job sharing.

Aside from debunking the notion that flexible work arrangements are the exception and not the rule, the study underscores the significance offering the work style plays in attracting, retaining and advancing the careers of high potential talent. It also shows the value of offering flex work in motivating more women to aspire to leadership roles, said Anna Beninger, a senior research associate at Catalyst and a co-author of the study.

“The reality here is flexible work arrangements are very critical,” she said.

The study also addressed a number of other common myths surrounding flexible work.

For instance, the mean age of high potentials who reported flex work as being “very” or “extremely” important was 41 years old, discrediting the belief that only younger workers prefer flex work.

Having a flexible work option is also not just important for workers with families, the study showed. About 54 percent of high potentials with children living at home reported flex work as being important; 50 percent of those without children reported the same.

By and large, women reported flexible work options as being more important, but both men and women said they use the option to the same extent throughout their careers, according to the study.

When breaking down usage among the different flex work styles by gender, women were more likely than men to report using telecommuting. Men were also twice as likely to report that they have never used telework over the course of their careers.

In light of the data showing women are more likely to telecommute — a development that undoubtedly reduces face time — Beninger said diversity leaders at organizations with a telecommuting option should keep a close eye on the advancement of female high potentials.

Are women in organizations that allow telecommuting advancing more slowly as a result? Are there metrics in place to track this? What can the organization do to increase the visibility of people who work remotely to ensure their advancement potential doesn’t dwindle as a result?

“The real issue is about trust,” Beninger said. With the study showing how important offering flexible work is to high potential workers across the spectrum, Beninger said managers must develop a higher of level of trustworthiness in employees’ ability to produce results and decrease the focus on face time.

“The bottom line is that offering flex work arrangements is critical for organizations to maximize their talent pool,” she said. “Organizations have got to move past the myth and get down to the hard facts.”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@diversity-executive.com.