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Speech - Who cares? Managing flexibility in the workplace

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Who cares?
Managing flexibility in the workplace

Speech by
the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity

20th Women, Management and Employment Relations

Four Seasons Hotel, Sydney
Thursday 24 July

I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered here today on the
traditional land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I pay my deepest
respects to their elders past and present.


Some of you may be aware that on Tuesday I launched my plan of action towards
gender equality. I identified 5 priority areas but the one that really hit a
chord with Australians everywhere was balancing work and family. So my talk
today is directed towards what work actually means for men and women in the
21st century. That’s why conferences like this are so
important in keeping the conversation alive!

Flexibility continues to be a topic that has a lot of currency with a steady
stream of research by Juliet and many
others.[1] Yet for me at least, it is
always the stories that come to mind. I’d like to share a couple of my own
with you.

Several years ago in my former life as a lawyer, I was asked to deliver a
speech at one of the regional law societies. They were trying to attract more
female lawyers as members. Would I speak on flexible work practice? But no
sooner had I mentioned the words “part-time work” than a gentleman
at the front stood up and demanded “You’re not suggesting that
lawyers could work part-time are you?”

“Yes” I said and started to point to some examples that were
working well.

“Well who’s going to look after the children?” he said.

Well who’s going to look after the children?”

“Well if you’re suggesting that mothers can’t be practising
lawyers I’m afraid we will have to agree to disagree.”

“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting!” he said.

“Can I ask you then – why are we wasting tax payers’ money
educating women and then allowing them to think they can be productive in the
paid workforce?”

“Why are we?” he said.

“Do you have a daughter?” I asked. “Yes”.

“Are you educating her?”

“Yes I am but maybe I shouldn’t be!”

It was the first time I realised the depth of emotion that a discussion about
flexible work can invoke!

Beyond DIY Flexibility

It gives me great optimism that we are no longer talking about whether
flexible work arrangements should be part of the modern workplace, but rather
how we ensure that they exist in a manner that delivers for both the
organisation and the individual.

For many people, unfortunately, the rhetoric of flexible work is not matching
the reality.

I first came to flexible work about 12 years ago. Some of you will have
heard me tell the story of the day it looked like the new area of legal practice
which I had been growing and nurturing for 5 years might come to a resounding
stop. I was a partner at Blake Dawson and had grown a group known as the Legal
Technology Group, which practised at the intersection of technology and law.

5 years after the group had been established, I had a day at work where one
of my lawyers popped into my office to tell me she was pregnant. The same
afternoon another senior manager came to see me with the same news. What they
didn't know was that I also was pregnant. And when three weeks later a fourth
lawyer joined the mother-to be queue we knew we had a problem. That was half
the entire team that would be out on maternity leave at one time. As the person
in charge of the team I had to find solutions and find them fast.

With four of the team pregnant we now had a solid business reason to reinvent
the way we worked. We developed a program where the ultimate responsibility for
matters rested with the individual, whether or not they worked full or
part-time. And if a flexible worker needed to come in on a non-designated work
day and could not arrange child care at short notice, they could bring in the
kids. They also agreed to carry a mobile phone when away from their home, and
to access their e-mail account at least once a day. I wanted each of our
flexible workers to remain just as committed to the firm as they had been before
they had their maternity leave, and this meant that they maintained their
previous position and level of seniority. At the heart of each of these
arrangements was reciprocity and trust.

We realized early on that we needed support staff who also shared the vision.
That’s when we hired Michelle as a new junior secretary. Michelle had
been a secretary for only 3 weeks but she’d been a nanny for 3 years.
With that experience, we knew we needed her on our team!

Like most of my staff, I had thought long and hard before I decided to have a
baby, and deliberately put off the decision until I was 36 years old.

But having taken the plunge I wanted to be both an involved mother and a
committed lawyer. A flexible work arrangement offered me the best opportunity
to progress both. At that time there were no part-time partners and no requests
from partners to work part-time.

I knew that if this arrangement couldn’t be accommodated within the
firm I would need to find a job in a different work environment. I also
realized that this request would have to be presented in a manner that showed it
would work for both the business and me. Without that reciprocity it
wouldn’t be possible. So in 1996, I became the firm’s first part
time partner.

We were determined to make flexibility work. As a business owner and people
manager, workplace flexibility allowed me to build a supportive and productive
environment like nothing else. It built a loyalty among staff that money could
not buy.

We didn't set out to change the world, just to make flexibility work in our
small team. But that had some amazing flow on impacts and Blake Dawson is now
at a stage where in excess of 20 per cent of the workforce works in a flexible
work arrangement.

However as a long time advocate for flexible work arrangements, I have now
come to a point where I am concerned with systemic flexibility.

It seems to me we have done the easy part. We have now progressed to the
stage that I call DIY Flexibility or as Graeme Russell often calls it - MY
Flexibility – where an employee requests flexible work often to balance
work and family responsibilities and a well intentioned employer runs around to
make sure this individual is accommodated. Invariably the result is a 6 day per
week job squashed into 3 days with all too predictable results. Many
organisations have rolled out flexible work policies and have people
(principally women) accessing them, but the hard work is yet to come.

What we haven’t seen as yet is flexibility being embraced as business
opportunity. By that I mean organisations embracing flexibility so as to offer
new services or to access a significant new talent pool in a manner that works.
I think the reason we haven’t see this is, that it requires job redesign.
Job redesign is at the heart of true flexible work practice that delivers for
both the business and the individual.

Job redesign is not easy. To be successful it requires the redesign of the
systems that underpin work (HR systems, financial systems, reward systems

Having effective flexible work practice also means confronting significant
attitudinal barriers such as deeply held prejudices about men and women’s
roles in both the family and paid work.

We need to challenge the stereotype of the ideal worker – most often
thought to be a male, with no visible caring responsibilities, and 24/7

So, it seems to me that as employees and employers we need to advance
flexible work practice on two fundamental fronts - attitudinal change and job


Redefining work is not for the faint hearted. Sometime I feel like we have
been handed this unalterable construct known as “work” and we feel
powerless to change it.

For women particularly, but also for men it is clear that success in the
workplace will remain elusive for many, unless there is concerted pressure for
change – change in work practice, change in culture, in government policy,
in the home, and in ourselves.

I urge you to be part of that change.

[1] Including: Prof. Margaret
Thornton’s report “The Gender Trap: Flexible Work in Corporate Legal
Practice”, Prof. Linda Duxbury’s research into work life balance in
the profession; and “Bendable or Expendable?” a joint project of the
Victorian Women Lawyers and the Law Institute of Victoria.