Tackling gender inequality, work-life balance and well-being via family friendly policies and practice

Dr Ashman, Dr Radcliffe and Professor Gatrell’s research explores how employed parents and diverse families managed boundaries between paid work and family lives.

Achieving equality at work is a key issue and continued challenge for UK organisations. Research by Professor Gatrell, Dr Radcliffe and Dr Ashman has explored how diverse families manage work and family, seeking to understand how employees respond to crisis situations, uncovering the subsequent well-being and (in)equality implications these might have. This research has had an impact on organisational changes in work-family policy and practice, and subsequently on working parents across the UK. This means introducing and embedding more extensive and diverse modes of flexible working into organisations, engaging men in the diversity and inclusivity agenda through promoting shared parental leave and better supporting parents back to work. This body of work creates better support for diverse families in a way that enables greater equity, well-being and longevity for UK employees.


Enabling diverse individuals to manage work and non-work responsibilities, maintaining employment and enabling well-being are currently key issues among government, policy makers/influencers and organisations.   The research has illuminated inequality of uptake of flexible working among fathers, and parents in diverse family forms, and shows how flexible working opportunities are not only gendered, but also offer insufficient support to diverse families and their shifting circumstances. Furthermore, the research highlight how existing flexible working policies and practices, even when they are used, are not adequately designed to meet the complex and dynamic needs of working families and in some cases can be counterproductive. This is increasingly pertinent given the fallout from pandemic, an increasing move to hybrid working and the greater subsequent blurring of work, family and the rest of life.


Research conducted by Dr Radcliffe has focused on the daily impact of the availability and use of organisational family-friendly policies, such as flexible working. She found that men working more flexibly can be key to work-family conflicts being more easily resolved, reducing stress, promoting gender equality, and aiding work-family balance within couples, and that single parents who have access to more extensive organisational flexibility are able to maintain careers commensurate with their skill level. Using in-depth qualitative interviews and diary methods, her research has provided a fine-grained understanding of how daily practices unfold over time, as well as an understanding of the dynamic nature of work-family experiences. Drawing on rich netnographic data over the pandemic, Dr Ashman’s research further shows how working families respond to severe disruption, moving between different modes of reordering work and family life, only being able to maintain employment and well-being in contexts of extensive and dynamic flexibility. Professor Gatrell’s research shows how fathers are often excluded within law, policy and practice from opportunities to flexible work and the prioritisation of child-care, and how, while men feel ‘entitled’ to seek promotion and advancement at work, they are less confident when it comes to requesting the right to work flexibly, for family reasons. Among employed mothers, while flexible working might seem more accessible than it does for men, many experience barriers to career progress as flexibility is associated unfairly with a presumed lessening of career orientation.


This research has ongoing impact in the business community via business networks and specialised consultancies who have embedded the findings with their organisational offerings, permitting the research to have broad impact across UK organisations.

For instance, our research has advanced organisational attitudes towards family-friendly working leading to; targeted family friendly education by prominent family and gender-oriented charities and consultancies reaching 150+ organisations; improved family-friendly approaches in 8 UK corporations, and changed behaviours among managers and employees, evidenced by increased paternal uptake of family-friendly policies and improved support for returning mothers. For example, Zurich Insurance (4,500 UK employees) amended their returners’ support programme, changing their showcase examples to include men and re-developing their parental leave policy with fathers in mind. Nationwide (18,000 employees) increased paid paternity leave from 2 to 6 weeks from January 2020 and amended promotion of family-friendly policies to encourage take-up by men. Shell (6,000 UK employees) created a ‘flexible working toolkit’ for managers, initiated regular ‘flexible working clinics’, and developed a flexible working role model campaign, ensuring representation of men using flexible working.

The team continues to work closely with a number of prominent consultancies (Avenir Consulting, How Do You Do It, and Head Office) to develop programmes to increase managers’ awareness and understanding of family diversity and dynamism and the needs of employed parents. By securing ‘top-down’ commitment of senior management in organisations who work with our consultancy partners, we are embedding training that will help managers strengthen their policies and practices in this area, promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace via broadening notions of flexible working and extending existing flexible working schemes.

Ongoing Research 

Ongoing research projects conducted by Dr Ashman, Professor Gatrell and Dr Radcliffe explore the experiences of more diverse family types, and the impact of managing work and family in the context of hybrid working. Another major stream of this research focuses on the maternal body in the workplace. Drawing upon the sociological concept ‘abjection’ (or disgust) Professor Gatrell devised the term ‘Maternal Body Work’ to articulate mothers’ attempts to prioritise maternity (for example by breastfeeding), while also comporting their maternal bodies ‘appropriately’ at work (in the eyes of their organization) and demonstrating themselves to be committed colleagues.

Dr Rachel Ashman, Dr Laura Radcliffe and Professor Caroline Gatrell

Dr Rachel Ashman, Dr Laura Radcliffe and Professor Caroline Gatrell.

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