Work-Life Integration and Gender Stereotypes in 2024

The post-pandemic world promised a significant shift in roles and responsibilities of men and women when it came to family and work. Many men had taken a more active role in the home during lockdowns and Generation Z and Millennial fathers were already vocal in expecting more flexibility at work around family life. Gender Pay Gap reporting resumed, and many organisations returned to ambitious targets for gender representation at senior levels.

However, as 2024 surges through its first quarter, families are still struggling under cost-of-living pressures and – amid a pull back toward central offices – many women opt to remain in hybrid or remote roles, to save on after-school and wraparound care. As a result, some feel less visible at work, and lacking in practical support to pursue career progression.

So rather than the anticipated gender equity, is there instead a pending crisis for employers and their gender representation targets? In a live webinar that took place on February 22nd, panellists; Jennifer Liston-Smith, Sarah Newton, and Sarah Jackson, chaired by James Marsh for HRreview, discussed:

  • The latest research on male and female attitudes to work-life fit and the risk associated with these.
  • Insightful employer examples and what works for gender inclusion and career progression.
  • What can, and should, employers be doing to support parents and carers of all genders with the mental load, particularly in light of International Women’s Day (8th March)?

In this article, we summarise their discussion and highlight some key takeaways…

The Latest Research on Work-Life Balance Attitudes

Reflections on Progress

Sarah Newton, Senior Associate in Employment at Baker McKenzie LLP, acknowledged significant progress in work-life balance, particularly post-pandemic. The sudden shift to remote work highlighted the disproportionate burden on women, fostering greater leadership understanding.

Reflecting on three decades of experience, Sarah Jackson OBE, authority on Flexible and Hybrid Working and Visiting Professor at Cranfield University, acknowledged remarkable progress since her return to work after having her first child, noting the shift from silent parenting to openly parenting ‘out loud’.

Words of Warning

While organisations demonstrated a better understanding of their employee needs over the past few years, both Sarah Newton and Sarah Jackson shared some words of warning as we move forward. They spoke about potential regression that organisations could face as they prioritise returning to the office, raising concerns about the future balance between remote and office work. They also warned against complacency, urging organisations to keep up the momentum by addressing the needs of fathers and male caregivers, citing the limited provision of paternity leave as evidence of ongoing gender disparities.

Research & Insights

Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership at Bright Horizons, shared insights from the latest (2024) Modern Families Index, an annual UK study surveying 3,000 randomly-selected working parents and caregivers. The research provides a longitudinal perspective on family and work dynamics, echoing the thoughts shared above by revealing potential backward movement in perceptions of employer support, especially among women. Despite progress in some areas, there's a pressing need to continue efforts to promote gender equity both at home and in the workplace.

The MFI report explores the concept of the three Rs - risks, reality, and retention. These highlight the nuanced challenges faced by employees and their implications for employers, including an increasing risk of talent loss as employees seek new work, drawn by promises of greater family support from competing employers. This year, 42% of respondents are considering a job change, a 4-percentage point increase from 2023, driven primarily by working mothers who describe challenges in career progression while working flexibly.

The Importance of Employer Support and Family-Friendly Policies

This year's data indicates a concerning decline in employer support for work-life balance, particularly among women who express less confidence discussing family issues at work than last year and perceive dwindling attention to work-home balance from organisations and managers. This underscores the critical role of employers in fostering a supportive and inclusive workplace culture.

Jennifer emphasised the importance of family-friendly policy and practice in talent attraction and retention, with flexible working arrangements, enhanced parental leave, and childcare assistance topping the list of employee priorities. It is crucial for employers to align with evolving expectations and provide robust support systems for better work-life integration.

As organisations transition back to office environments, employees seek assistance with childcare and caregiving responsibilities. There is also a growing demand for inclusive approaches accommodating diverse family structures, including support for pet care. This calls for employers to recognise and adapt to the evolving needs of their workforce.

Key Organisational Strategies for Gender Inclusion

Several organisations have implemented innovative strategies to promote gender inclusion and support career progression for employees of all genders. For example, Baker McKenzie has established leadership development programmes specifically tailored for women, such as the "Lift" program, aimed at supporting women's advancement to senior leadership positions within the firm.

Additionally, flexible working, back-up care, parental leave coaching and mentorship programs have proved effective in fostering a more inclusive workplace culture. By prioritising initiatives that address the unique needs of diverse employees, organisations can create environments where individuals can thrive professionally while maintaining a healthy and sustainable work-life balance.

Here are some key strategies mentioned in the discussion:

Recruitment Strategies: Organisations should adopt transparent recruitment practices, including proactively advertising flexible work options and avoiding inquiries about salary history to mitigate gender biases. Prioritising transparency fosters a culture of equity and attracts a diverse talent pool.

Empowering Career Progression: Equitable career progression tracking is essential for part-time and hybrid workers. Organisations are encouraged to monitor advancements among flexible workers and address any disparities with unbiased performance assessments and support mechanisms, ensuring equal opportunities for all employees.

Supporting Men in Caregiving Roles: Promoting active fatherhood involves equalising parental leave and pay. Normalising flexible working and offering inclusive support programmes that target male caregivers creates an environment for men to fulfil caregiving roles while advancing their careers.

Embracing Flexible Working: Normalising flexible work for all employees fosters an inclusive environment. Organisations should offer various options, including job sharing and part-time schedules, to accommodate the diverse needs of their people. Promoting flexibility enables employees to balance professional and personal responsibilities effectively.

Supportive Partnerships: Baker McKenzie partners with Bright Horizons to provide comprehensive support for parents and carers, including coaching through the parent transition for individuals and managers, backup care solutions for parents and carers needing short-notice arrangements as well as virtual tutoring and also access to expert advice, life-stage based content and webinars on all matters relating to combining family life with career. These resources facilitate a smooth transition back to work, ongoing success and reliable support for managing caregiving responsibilities.

Fostering a Supportive Culture: Senior leaders modelling agile and flexible working practices normalise work-family integration. Demonstrating commitment to work-life balance creates an inclusive environment where employees feel empowered to prioritise family responsibilities without hindering career progression.

Tailoring Support across the Talent Lifecycle: Employers must address work-family challenges at various stages of the talent lifecycle. Providing tailored support, including coaching and access to childcare and adult care resources, recognises the intersectionality of family caregiving and career development, fostering inclusivity and support.

Supporting Parents & Carers

As International Women’s Day approaches, employers have a prime opportunity to reevaluate their support mechanisms for parents and carers of all genders. This includes implementing policies and programmes that alleviate the mental load associated with caregiving responsibilities.

Practical support measures, such as flexible working hours, access to affordable childcare services, and promoting a culture of work-life fit, can improve equity for employees managing caregiving duties. Moreover, investing in mental health resources and offering parental leave coaching and mentorship programmes can help individuals navigate the challenges of balancing work and family responsibilities, ultimately fostering a more inclusive and supportive work environment for all.

The panellists continued to share valuable insights into promoting men's active involvement in parenting and addressing gendered assumptions within organisations.

Here are some key strategies that were mentioned…

Promoting Active Parenting: Organisations can support and enhance shared parental leave and flexible work by providing clear information and dedicated support channels, empowering men to prioritise caregiving responsibilities.

Engaging Men in Parental Support: Data shows that men are eager to participate in initiatives such as coaching sessions addressing parent transitions. Tailoring support programmes to men's needs fosters meaningful dialogue and shared learning experiences.

Addressing Gendered Challenges: Cultural shifts mean parenting and caring are no longer seen in such gendered ways. By challenging stereotypes and offering inclusive policies, organisations can create opportunities for all employees to thrive.

Fostering Inclusive Workplaces: Promoting flexible work and inclusive policies empowers all genders to maintain work-life balance. Supporting diverse family structures contributes to a culture of inclusivity and mutual support.

If you enjoyed the insights that were shared in this article, you might like to listen to the full conversation by watching the recorded webinar here.

If you’d like to explore how Bright Horizons can partner with you to support your organisations goals, contact us today.