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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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.