Flex Appeal and the fight for equality in the workplace
Anna Whitehouse is a Sunday Times Bestselling Author, Heart Radio Presenter & Founder of Mother Pukka; a platform created to share the trials and tribulations of parenthood and beyond. In 2015 she launched Flex Appeal to campaign for workplace flexibility.
“I have been freelance, or semi-freelance, for most of my working life, but it’s only as a parent that I’ve realised how important some flexibility is, and how hard it is for two parents to work full-time in office jobs.” says Whitehouse. “It’s rare to find a daycare that opens beyond 8am to 6pm, yet flexible working hasn’t been fully adopted or embraced yet because I think there is a fear, there is a fear of the unknown.”
Raised in Amsterdam with a Dutch mother and an English father, Whitehouse has a different perspective to most when it comes to working families. “In Amsterdam family comes first,” she says. “It is accepted that people have families and the support is there. In the UK it’s about pretending you don’t have a job when you are at home and pretending you don’t have a family when you are at work – it’s a lot to keep up.”
As a parent juggling full time employment, the turning point for Whitehouse came in 2015 when a series of events led her to quit her job as a Senior Copywriter. “I was coming back from work. I’d left the office at 4.59pm to go and collect my daughter from nursery and somebody got their briefcase trapped in the tube door and it put me about 12 minutes late for nursery pick up. And I got there and I was sat on one of those tiny primary coloured chairs meant for an infant and told off, and in that moment I felt I couldn’t apologise anymore because I didn’t feel like it was my fault. I felt like the system wasn’t working, not that I wasn’t working.” Whitehouse put in a flexible working request the next day to her employer and it was rejected on the basis that they felt it might open the ‘floodgates’ to others seeking flexible working. “That was when I quit. I posted on Instagram to say ‘today I quit’, with the hashtag #FlexAppeal which garnered an overwhelming response.”
Whitehouse decided she wanted to challenge the system and launched Flex Appeal soon after. A campaign to push for flexible working for all in a bid to reduce stress related burnout and increase productivity, her Flex Appeal campaign has worked hard to raise awareness, and encourage employers to improve access to flexible working, whether part-time, remotely, job sharing or ‘irregular’ hours for parents and non-parents alike.
“I started Flex Appeal pretty much as soon as I quit my job. I had around 140 comments from my ‘I quit’ post, so it had gone outside of my organic network I realised I definitely wasn’t alone.”
Flex Appeal quickly gained momentum on social media, yet for Whitehouse it was a challenge to get her voice heard outside the online space. “I felt I was looked at as just this woman shouting on the street saying ‘do this, it’s a great thing, it’s good for business’. I had all the stats, I could back up everything I was saying but I wasn’t being listened to up to that point.” says Whitehouse.
Following the Gender Pay Gap reporting in 2018, finally things started to shift. In 2017, the Government introduced world-leading legislation that made it statutory for organisations with 250 or more employees to report annually on their gender pay gap. “The day that the reporting came out, I had an influx of emails from comms departments from the very companies that had kept their doors firmly closed to me.” continues Whitehouse. “It suddently felt like the world actually is changing, and I can help these companies to adapt so there’s nothing to fear, and that’s when things shifted.”
According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission flexible working is the ‘primary way’ to close the Gender Pay Gap. McKinsey estimated that flexible working will help boost the UK economy by £148 million by 2030. Regus commissioned a survey around commuter times, and found that flexible working can help reduce carbon dioxide by 7.8 million tonnes by 2030.
According to the NHS, there are fewer deaths on wards that work flexibly. “Birmingham Women’s NHS Foundation Trust trialled ward-led rostering and the biggest breakthrough was a problem for the matron turning into a solution. Her nurses would text to say, “I’ve switched my shift with X, just letting you know” instead of “can I switch my shift with X?” If found this such a simple win for an employer. In a world that is already under resourced, flexible working – specifically empowering your employees to work around each other’s personal needs – offered a cost-effective solution.”
One of her proudest moments came when she delivered evidence to the Welsh Assembly on a link between flexible working and the gender pay gap, and how maternity discrimination feeds into it. “It was a huge opportunity to pool together all of the voices and frustrations that I’d heard behind the scenes from those following the campaign, and be able to actually ‘put it somewhere’.” continues Whitehouse. “We were no longer just talking to an echo chamber, and the week after that, flexible working was pinpointed as the primary way to close the gender pay gap in Wales – a huge achievement.”
Whitehouse acknowledges the challenges that some employees face in their request for flexible working. “I think a lot of people give up when they’re given an initial ‘no’. My advice would be to really consider how you approach the situation. Think about what’s best for both you and the business and present your request in the most powerful way possible. If that doesn’t work - wield the gender pay gap reporting at your employers. There are very few companies who wouldn’t want to be seen as trying to help fix this. Flexible working must be open to all, with people being judged on their productivity rather than presenteeism.”
Flex Appeal teamed up with three other organisations to form the Flex For All campaign last year, calling on the UK government to demand flexible working, meaning that all job roles must be advertised as flexible from day one (currently just one in 10 jobs are advertised as such). Last July this bill was read in Parliament. “Flexible working is finally being seen as something for all people, not just parents, but people wanting to live, people with responsibilities beyond their control.” explains Whitehouse. “People who want to get off the 9–5 hamster wheel, those who need or want to work the odd day from home, those living with disabilities, those with medical conditions, those with caring responsibilities. Getting funding for Flex Appeal is a huge deal for us and follows months of relentless pitching and outreach. We finally have a backer – a multi-million pound company who believe as much as we do that change has to happen. It’s a long road but we are finally being heard.”
For more information about the Flex Appeal campaign, see @mother_pukka on Instagram.