Companies pay the price for inflexibility

It is a new corporate reality that in order to retain talented women, companies must offer flexible work arrangements. These practices – from variable hours to telecommuting and part-time employment – enable workers, women and men alike, to strike a better balance between office obligations and home life.

Some countries understand this better than others, according to a new survey. The survey of nearly 8,000 businesses in 39 countries by Grant Thornton International, the accounting company, found the nations with the highest percentage of companies offering flexible work arrangements were Finland, Sweden and Australia (92, 86 and 85 per cent respectively). Japan, Greece and Armenia ranked the lowest (with 18, 26 and 35 per cent).

The US and the UK tied for eighth place. In each country, 79 per cent of companies say they offer flexible work schedules to their employees. I asked Jacqueline Akerblom, managing partner for women’s initiatives and programmes at Grant Thornton, why she thought Finland and Sweden scored so high. She said:

“It’s not so much their national values, it’s more about inherent culture.

“The countries that rank at the top are very egalitarian in their views. They put a high value on a shared workload. It’s part of the culture of respecting women’s careers as on a par with men’s.”

Like it or not, women still do a lot more of the household management and domestic chores than men, she said. “It’s either because they want to do it, or because they have husbands who expect it, and it falls to them.” (In 2009 a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that in 2003 to 2007, women in the US spent an average of 10.8 hours more per week doing unpaid “household work” than men.)

Working for a company that enables women to be career-minded without sacrificing their home and family lives is vital to keep them on staff, she said. “The key to retaining talented women is having an alternative path [on] which they can progress. It also helps recruit experienced hires. Young women tend to be more interested in leadership and professional training. But when they are ready to start families [the option of flexible work arrangements] becomes extremely important.

“Having visible role models is another huge retainer of women,” she added. “I’ve known a number of women who didn’t necessarily want to leave the workforce, but they couldn’t figure out how to make it work.”

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