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Flexible working: ‘A system set up for women to fail’

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Employees want it, employers know they have to offer it; flexible working has transformed almost every office during the pandemic and it’s here to stay.

It is a change that has been demanded for decades by groups including women, those with caring responsibilities and disabled people. But economists and employment experts are warning it could lead to more inequality at the office, particularly for working mothers.

The latest to voice concerns was the Bank of England policymaker Catherine Mann, who warned of a “she-cession”, and said women who accept their employer’s offer of working mostly from home risk damaging their careers, as they aren’t returning to the office after Covid to the same extent as men.

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Mann told an event for women in finance hosted by the newspaper Financial News that technology and virtual working methods couldn’t replace spontaneous office conversations that are also vital for career progression.

“There is the potential for two tracks,” she said. “There’s the people who are on the virtual track and people who are on the physical track. And I do worry that we will see those two tracks develop, and we will pretty much know who’s going to be on which track, unfortunately.”

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Traditionally, more women than men – particularly those with children or caring responsibilities – have requested flexible working. Women were found to have taken on more responsibility for household chores during the pandemic, and surveys suggest they also bore the brunt of home schooling.

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The switch to working from home has, more than 18 months on from the start of the first lockdown, changed a traditional office-based culture for good, even prompting the government to consult on making home working the “default” option.

For some, however, the more flexible approach has resulted in setbacks.

Jennifer*, a mother-of-two from Kent, recently returned to her role as a user experience researcher after her second maternity leave. During the pandemic her employer decided to close its London offices, and now rents space in a co-working building.

The 38-year-old has opted to work three long days each week and is continuing to work from home, but she worries about missing out.

“What I have seen is the people who can go, will, and are, doing the networking and having the coffees and the informal chat, and meeting the new CEO. I am very conscious it doesn’t feel like something I can easily do, as I need to go and pick up the kids,” Jennifer said.

Her experience differs vastly from her husband’s, who was one of a rare group of remote workers pre-Covid. His company has now shifted to permanent remote working for all employees, which she believes has put him on an “equal footing” with the rest of the workforce.

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“He’s not a second-class citizen. I also don’t get the feeling he’s looked down on for being a parent,” she said.

Anna Whitehouse, a broadcaster and the founder of Flex Appeal, a campaign for the adoption of flexible working across all UK jobs, believes women are disadvantaged because they usually take responsibility for looking after children.

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“I got so frustrated with Catherine Mann’s comments, that it’s a female issue, for us to fix,” she said.

“We’re obviously going to be taking up more flexible working because of the way the system is, the burden of childcare is still firmly strapped to female shoulders. But that’s not to say that there are these hapless dads who don’t want to step up to the challenge.”

Whitehouse, who runs the popular Mother Pukka blog, is calling for families to discuss how they divide up household chores and childcare, and for more men to push for flexible working.

“We are in a system set up for women to fail, to an extent, and I think we need companies to help us bridge that gender pay gap.”

Indeed, some campaigners advocate increased uptake of flexible working by men as one way of improving pay disparity, especially given data from the Office for National Statistics which suggests that the gender pay gap widened during the pandemic.

Last Thursday marked Equal Pay Day – the date when women effectively begin working for free each year, because on average they are paid less than men – as calculated annually by the Fawcett Society.

“Flexible working is here to stay,” said Andrew Bazeley, the policy and public affairs manager at the society. “There are a number of people who will prioritise it in job applications, so in a tight labour market employers will realise they have to offer it, especially if they don’t want to widen the gender pay gap.”

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The challenge for managers is that many have not been trained on how to supervise remote workers, according to Ann Francke, the chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI).

Nearly a third (29%) of managers said they felt promotion opportunities would decrease for remote workers, according to a recent CMI poll of 1,200 UK bosses, although 58% said they thought remote working would make no difference to staff prospects.

The majority of organisations have not yet done anything to ensure that a home office is not an obstacle. According to the survey, 30% of managers admitted their organisation had not taken steps to ensure employees were not passed over, while 38% did not know. Only a third of (33%) companies had put procedures in place to ensure staff working remotely home workers had an equal shot at future promotions.

“Even though both men and women wish to work flexibly, of course more women than men will request it, and the implication is they are the ones who will suffer,” said Francke.

“It is extremely important that organisations are not complacent. They need training on judging people and promotions by productivity not presenteeism.”

* Not her real name