To Achieve True Workplace Equality for Women, Women and Men Need Time Parity

What will it take for women to gain true equality in the workplace? The answer isn't just pay parity. It's also time parity.

Ten years ago, the Center for Talent Innovation introduced the term "off-ramps and on-ramps" into the conversation: The phrase refers to the voluntary career interruptions triggered by childcare, eldercare, or life's unanticipated curveballs and the paths that enable them to return to their jobs and regain their career momentum.

Our 2005 groundbreaking study found that 37 percent of highly qualified women in the U.S. took an off-ramp. In addition, fully 66 percent took a scenic route -- working flextime or part time for a number of years. All in all, nearly three-quarters of the accomplished women failed to conjure up the linear lock-step progression of a successful male career. Little had changed when we revisited the study in 2010, either in terms of the percentages or the penalties. Both studies found that women paid a huge price in terms of both earning power and long-run promotional prospects.

Here's the focal point: Our investigations found that more than two-thirds (69 percent) say they wouldn't have off-ramped if their companies had offered flexible work options, such as reduced-hour schedules, job sharing, part-time career tracks or short unpaid sabbaticals.

And even when companies offer flexible work arrangements, most professionals who are worried about their job security or promotional prospects don't feel comfortable asking for a staggered workday or telecommuting arrangement due to fear of how it might negatively impact their career advancement.

And too often their fears are realized: Our research routinely showed that women who took a scenic route felt stalled, compared to those who followed a conventional career path.

Maternity leave is also subject to a similar stigma. An article in The Atlantic notes a tacit backlash against long maternity leaves:

Anticipating that women will disappear for long periods of time, managers become reluctant to hire them into senior positions, and female workers are shunted (or shunt themselves) into lower-paying sectors.

Observing that long maternity leaves can "fortify the glass ceiling rather than shatter it," the author adds, "Among labor economists, overly long maternity leaves are now recognized as creating a barrier to pay equity."

It's time to remove the gender-based stigma associated with flex and leave policies. The fact is, neither flex nor parental leave is solely a women's issue.

CTI research finds that millennials consider flex a basic entitlement and Gen X, the bench strength of leadership, overwhelmingly want more control over their time: 66 percent of Xer women say that flexible hours and reduced schedules are very important in their choice of employer; 55 percent of Xer men agree.

Paternity leave, too, has begun to enter the corporate and cultural mainstream. Netflix plans to offer unlimited leave in the first year after a child's arrival. Google and Bank of America offer men 12 weeks of paid leave; Genentech and LinkedIn 6; and Facebook, a generous 17. While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act has long granted up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to mothers and fathers in large and medium-size workplaces, California, Rhode Island and New Jersey now offer between four and six weeks of paid leave for mothers and fathers alike.

The challenge is getting men to dismiss the stigma associated with flex and "family time" and proudly take the time that's due them.

Here's how some companies are addressing that:

Citi addresses the stigma associated with flex options by presenting its "Alternative Workplace Strategy" (AWS) as a new type of flextime/workspace arrangement for all employees. Employees who do much of their work online or over the phone, for example, can work remotely part of the time - or in some cases all the time. Additionally, employees who travel frequently can move to an office-sharing environment customized to the individual requirements of their jobs and schedules. Many participants of the program believe that the AWS system has provided them with more flexibility and productivity.

Deloitte addresses the stigma associated with flex options by presenting its Mass Career Customization program as an option for employees at any life stage. Employees don't need to explain why they'd like to reduce their career intensity -- it could be because of childcare, but also for eldercare or a desire to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or take ballroom-dancing classes. Success is not measured by how many people dial down to balance family and career or dial backup, but in how satisfied they are with their careers at Deloitte. Over 60 percent of participants reported that MCC has positively impacted their likelihood to recommend the company as a great place to work.

One of flex's long-time conundrums for both employers and employees has been that it is often doled out as a favor on a case-by-case basis or perceived as an entitlement. Sodexo, a leading provider of food and facilities management solutions, cut through the confusion with a simple formal flexible work program. Eligible employees - workers with no past or current performance issues - propose their own flex arrangements; managers assess whether the arrangements will allow them to meet performance and productivity goals. Trial periods and semi-annual reviews gauge success and fix problems before they mushroom.

General Mills' FUSE (Flexible User Shared Environment) program explores ways of providing employees flexibility to increase employee engagement, promote a collaborative work environment, and use office space efficiently through formal flexible work arrangements, informal everyday flexibility, and time off. Surveys taken after the pilot program launched in 2007 found that workers reported a 35 percent increase in their ability to plan their days in a productive way, and a 33 percent increase in feeling that the environment promoted team collaboration and information sharing.

To enable women to contribute most fully, companies must offer flexible work arrangements and leave policies that allow both men and women equal opportunities to manage their work/life balance without penalty or stigma. It's both the smart and right thing to do.