Access to Flex is a Key Driver of Ambition for Women

Businesswoman using smart phoneBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Recent Catalyst research shows that access to flexible working arrangements is a critical driver of ambition for high potential women. The global study of high potential employees, released in early July, shows the availability of flexible working arrangements is widespread, with 81 percent of respondents (both men and women) reporting that their current firm offers some kind of flexible arrangement.

Women were somewhat more likely than men to use telecommuting (39 percent compared with 29 percent), but for the most part, women and men were likely to use other kinds of flexible working arrangements (FWAs) at roughly the same rates:

· 64 percent of both women and men said they have used flexible arrival and departure times frequently, very frequently, or always.

· 32 percent of women and 30 percent of men used flex time frequently, very frequently, or always.

· 7 percent of both women and men were likely to use a compressed work week frequently, very frequently, or always.

Even though FWA usage was mostly similar across genders, women tended to place more value on access to FWAs than men did. Two-thirds (67 percent) of women said that FWAs were very or extremely important to them, while almost half (46 percent) of men said the same.

Interestingly, FWA access was a predictor of women’s career ambition as well. Access to FWAs meant a high potential woman was more likely to aspire to a C-level job, and that difference was greater than it was for men.

Anna Beninger, an author of the report along with Nancy M. Carter, pointed out that this means access to FWAs is about more than day-to-day flexibility. It’s also about the perception of support. “Women working at a firm without flex access were more likely to downsize their career aspirations. This was what was most surprising to me about the findings. It’s not just about convenience. It’s about advancement and an organization’s ability to maximize its talent pool.”

It’s also about trust. Here’s why.

Flex Work and Ambition

According to the study, The Great Debate: Flexibility vs. Face Time, high potential women who had access to FWAs at their firm were more likely to aspire to C-Suite or Senior Management roles than women who didn’t have access. The vast majority (83 percent) of the women who had access to FWAs said they aspired to a top job, while just over half (54 percent) of women who didn’t have access to FWAs had the same level of ambition.

That amounts to nearly a 30 percentage point drop in C-Suite ambition for women working at firms that don’t provide access to flexible working arrangements. This drop was greater than it was for men. Nearly all (94 percent) of the men who had access to FWAs aspired to a top job, while 85 percent of the men who did not have access to FWAs had the same level of ambition. A decrease, but a much smaller one than there is for women.

Beninger says this comes down to trust. “When they’re able to leave work and still accomplish what they need to while meeting their professional expectations, they’re more likely to aspire to reach the top because they don’t feel like they’re drowning,” she explained.

“I think it has to do with trust. Does your manager trust you to get your work done even if he or she can’t see you working?”

Previous research by Catalyst showed that having support in the work environment was the most important quality in an employer for high potential women and men. “But men reported finding that support, and women did not,” Beninger added.

Providing FWAs may represent, for women especially, a means of providing that support. “Anything a firm can do to create a more supportive environment is definitely a positive step toward helping their high potentials fulfill their aspirations,” Beninger said.

Recently, high profile companies Yahoo! and BestBuy said they were cutting flexible working arrangements because of the perception that they were negatively affecting productivity. But research shows that this isn’t true – flexible working doesn’t decrease productivity, and face time doesn’t lead to top performance outcomes either.

These organizations were looking to change company-wide productivity issues that likely had little to do with flex options. “But for every employer that doesn’t offer flex options, there are four organizations that do,” Beninger pointed out. “They need to go beyond the myths to the facts in order to maximize their high potential workforce. The bottom line is that offering FWAs is critical to maximizing the talent pool. The most competitive companies offer flexible options, and they will miss out on high potential workers if they don’t.”