Flexible working might be technologically feasible but Australia’s private sector is still dragging its heels, perpetuating workplace stigmas for women and men, according to new research.

A new study by Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women finds less than half of Australian organisations have a flexible working policy and that even those who do aren’t necessarily making it work.

“Flexible working is still viewed as the exception to the rule in the majority of Australian companies,” the report said.

“Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency found that only 48 percent of non-public-sector organisations with more than 100 employees have a formal policy in place on flexible working arrangements.

“Furthermore, uptake remains modest: 38 percent of female respondents and 28 percent of male respondents use flexible work arrangements, according to our survey.”

Both men and women often sought flexible working arrangements to balance family responsibilities or to “play more active roles as caregivers”, the report noted.

“If Australian society really aspires to equal workforce participation by men and women at every level of leadership, then there is a clear imperative to ensure that both genders are equally enabled to share the caregiving role,” it said.

“Men and women therefore need to have equal access and equal success in working flexibly, without negative judgements or repercussions for their career progression.”

Negative experiences differed by gender, according to the research.

“Not surprisingly, women who are not satisfied with flexible working cite facing unrealistic expectations from others as the key issue they face,” the report said.

“This is often due to trying to work full-time jobs in part-time roles. ‘The work doesn’t reduce, just the hours you have to do the work in and the remuneration you receive for doing the work,’ noted one respondent.

“Lack of respect of boundaries when working part-time also was highlighted, with a respondent noting ‘meetings scheduled without regard to when I’m not working, constant expectation to join on my day at home’.”

Men with negative experiences of flexible work arrangements cited lack of support throughout their organisations, but starting from the top.

“’While opportunities exist, the environment that management creates makes it difficult to participate,’ said one [respondent].

“Underscoring the cultural challenge, ‘the arrangements worked as agreed, but I have felt judgement for using them,’ said another.

“In addition, the impact on career progression is stark: ‘My boss told me I wouldn’t be able to get promoted working part-time,’ said another respondent.”

The research, however, called out several positive corporate examples of flexible working, including at Westpac and Telstra.

Westpac launched a campaign called ‘All in Flex’ last year which allows all 40,000 roles worldwide to be considered for flexible work.

The bank also has programs to give employees more control in choosing how and from where they work, not tying them to a desk.

Telstra’s ‘All Roles Flex’ program, meanwhile, makes flexible working “the starting point for working at Telstra”. About 84 percent of staff believe they can now access flexible arrangements if need be.

Both programs had executive sponsorship, and the Bain-CEW report reiterates the importance of strong leadership.

“To break the stigma and negative sentiment associated with men working flexibly, organisations need to demonstrate commitment, from the CEO level down, to making flexible working the norm for both genders,” it said.