Is flexism the new sexism?

Ageism, sexism, racism… but there’s one -ism (a relatively new -ism on the block), that we’re not talking about as much. Yet. And that’s flexism. 

There’s plenty of debate about flexism, if it exists and whether we really need to tackle it. But what is flexism? Fundamentally it’s a different type of discrimination - one which discriminates against someone who works flexibly or who wants to work flexibly. 

We've looked at types of flexism, how they might affect you and asked the question: is flexism the new sexism for modern working women?

8 March 2019

Let’s start by saying that we applaud the fact that so many businesses are embracing flexible working practices. We’re flexible working advocates; we’ve seen first-hand the vast array of benefits that it can bring to both employers and employees. 

However we’ve also come across countless examples of employers who are simply paying lip service to flexible working. 

It’s these employers that are recruiting part-time candidates into full-time roles and expecting them to perform to the standard of someone working 36+ hours a week. What they’re actually doing is setting them up to fail; they’re asking for the impossible and causing unnecessary stress and worry in the process. This is flexism. 

On the other hand, there are employers who simply won’t consider any form of flex - even if it’s a legitimate request and completely workable within the role. Enforcing a blanket ban on flexible working can have legal consequences (worth remembering, 9-to-5 traditionalists) by openly excluding those who want to work flexibly. This is flexism.

What about men, unmarried, without children. Should they be able to request flexible working? Of course they should. But there’s an entrenched belief that flexibility is exclusively reserved for women with caring responsibilities and that this group should be prioritised. This is flexism. 

Flexism isn’t just an action; it’s also a feeling. What about employees who are sidelined (or feel they would be sidelined) for a promotion, simply because they work flexibly? Or those who are worried about making a flexible working request because they don’t want their commitment or work ethic to be called into question? This is flexism.

So is flexism a womens’ issue?

Certainly not - in our experience, men are as likely to encounter workplace flexism as women. But historically, the majority of flexible working arrangements have been driven by women, putting them firmly at the sharp end of the fight against flexism. 

What is clear is that our working environment is changing. Working elbow-to-elbow with your colleagues really isn’t necessary in this modern, digital world. This change has brought about a shift in demand for flexibility - from the working mum to the HR manager, from the Associate Solicitor to the CEO. There no longer needs to be a correlation between the hours you work and your level of seniority.

However this is a utopian view. The reality is that workplace flexism IS holding people back. People are working far below their skill level, purely to achieve the flexibility they need. Candidates are being overlooked for roles, simply because they want flexible working. Staff are exhausted, but are concerned about asking for part-time hours. 

How do we stamp out flexism?

For flexism to be abolished, we need to look at attitudes towards flexible working - starting at the top. However this is often easier said than done, especially if a change of culture is required. 

We need a flexible mindset, attitude and approach to work. Our processes, structures and policies need to be agile. And we need to start designing roles that are truly flexible - and not shoehorn flexibility into a business or department, simply as part of a box-ticking diversity exercise.

But most of all we need to challenge our own views and discriminations about flexible working. We need to think about our own careers, our employees, our colleagues and our friends. There has never been a better time to talk about flexible working and the impact that it can have on us, both mentally and physically - so let’s take advantage and work together to promote the benefits, tackle the negatives and banish workplace flexism for good.