Flexible working – empowering women or setting them up to fail?

Flexible working has been on the rise since the start of the Pandemic in March 2020. And while during lockdowns, it was deemed a necessity, now that we are back to a more normal way of life, there has been a gradual rise in the return to the office.

Why is office life so important?

Whilst working from home was a welcome novelty at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the shine has now faded for many workers and businesses, and a return to the office life that existed pre-covid is surging. The highs and lows of home working differ across the generations with older workers preferring to work from home and younger workers craving a return to the office life they had before Covid.

For younger workers, many have had to work from home in solitary conditions. Living alone has seen them cut off from the social aspect of life that they got from being in the office environment. Collaboration has declined as workers struggle with Zoom fatigue and professional development has taken a back seat as employee support has been harder to deliver. Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, says that“Learning face to face in the workplace is an unbeatable way to build skills and confidence. We must not deprive the next generation of this opportunity.” And she is right. Not only do we learn more about our jobs and develop our careers in the workplace, but we also learn a multitude of soft skills and life skills from being in this eclectic environment.

How Will Flexible Working Empower Women?

There are many surveys floating about on the internet that are telling us what women want when it comes to flexible working with more saying women want it than don’t. But when you dig a bit deeper, the reason for wanting more flexible working opportunities is so that they can manage their childcare responsibilities better. Amdas has had its fair share of working Mums in our team and can understand this sentiment, but it is very reflective of the fact that in 2022, women are still primary childcare givers and that many are still sacrificing their careers to support their families better at home. Whilst on the one hand flexible work will allow women to carry out child care responsibilities more easily, will they have access to the same job opportunities as those that do not have to care for their children and will this lead to rising gender inequality in the workplace? 

How Could Flexible Working Fail Women?

Employment experts are warning that the hybrid working model favoured by most large businesses and organisations, allowing staff to split their time between home and their desks, could have unintended consequences for gender equality. Professor Cary Cooper who is president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) believes wider take-up of flexible working by men would alleviate gender inequality in the post-Covid workplace. “If they don’t, then we have a problem, as women will be working substantially from home and the men will go in more days a week than the women, and that will adversely affect their career.” Women that are choosing flexible working because they have childcare responsibilities are worried that they are missing out on opportunities like networking with colleagues and being visible to the C-Suite. 

What is the Solution for Businesses?

Encouraging both men and women to take up flexible working opportunities if they are offered and making sure that the support women need to balance careers and families is in place. Organisations are duty-bound to close any disparity in gender pay, yet the gender pay gap widened through the pandemic, demonstrating that women that have the responsibility of family life firmly strapped to their shoulders are still being overlooked in the workplace. Managers need more training on how to supervise remote workers and support them in their career progression and professional development. There is a real fear among managers that promotion opportunities would decrease for remote workers. Organisations cannot be complacent about this. They need training on judging people and promotions by productivity not presenteeism and ensure employees are not passed over because their face isn’t always in front of them.