Flex Climbers: A tale of stalled progress?

Updated: Dec 4, 2018


I recently met a senior manager in a large bank who works four days per week. I mentioned how unusual it was to meet a part-time worker at such a senior level and this got us both thinking - how unusual is it? At a recent EHRC and GapSquare event my fears about stalled progress were confirmed with data showing that flexibility drops off dramatically the further up an organisation you go.

It seems that even when it is available, formal and structured informal flex are mainly accessible to those in the lower and middle ranks of corporate organisations or in organisations with historically lower pay. Once you reach a certain pay level it seems that the Ideal Worker model is alive and well.


Speaking further to my friend I discovered that as she was one of only a few senior 'flexers' in her organisation she was often the one featured in corporate communications and sent out to conferences to show how diverse the company is. In reality, as she herself recognizes, she is not a real model for others in her organisation to follow as she was parachuted into the organisation at a senior level. She may be a visible role model of senior flex but she is not a real model for others in her organisation talent pipeline to aspire to.

A key driver in closing the third and fourth pay quartile gender pay gap is to widen the definition of performance, away from the narrow Ideal Worker narrative, and accept people can work differently to achieve the same outcome, including more flexibly. The data below is from the 2017-2018 Gender Pay Gap reporting in the UK.

The graph shows the falling off of female participation as pay quartiles increase, no matter the company size. It is increasingly understood that this fall off is not simply a case of missing 'STEM' talent or women opting out but is mainly due to stalled progress in the talent pipeline. Of course companies can buy in senior female talent to re-balance, as occurred with my friend, but unless there is a culture that supports diverse talent, such as flexible working, then it is unlikely those same women will stay, and even if they do their discretionary effort will be affected.

So how can organisations get their talent pipeline moving;

  1. Stagnation review of any colleagues who have remained for more than six years at a specific level​. In actual fact, this is more common than you might think, especially if you are a flexible worker or have taken time off for one of more maternity leave(s).

  2. Real Models of flex climbers. This must not simply be parachuted in role models, but genuine stories of progression. As part of this nominating real models within you organisation to the Timewise Power 50 is a powerful way to highlight the progress your company is making and also allow others in less diverse companies the chance to see real models in action elsewhere.

  3. Clear promotion criteria with detailed competencies that do not bias those on non-traditional career tracks, including part-time. As part of this training, for non-traditional candidates in the promotion process is vital.

  4. Gender diverse promotion panels to minimize group think and unconscious bias around the Ideal Worker model.

​The reality is that for many working in corporate organisations on non-standard hours progress is increasingly stalled as they move up the pay quartiles. Forward looking organisations have already started taking action and are getting their talent pipeline moving but many more haven't yet started unlocking their talent pipeline. Isn't it about time flex climbers had an equal chance of progress?

If you enjoyed this post please check out the rest of my blog here, including my post on calling it a day on the Ideal Worker and How to Close the Inclusion Gap.


All opinions are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

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