For years, flexible working had been hailed as a potential solution to closing the gender gap, providing women with more opportunities to stay in work and progress their careers while still managing a family.
Roll on to 2022, and flexible working is everywhere, with organisations across the world having switched to remote working at the dawn of the pandemic, and many now embracing a hybrid model (in the UK, more than 41% of employers asked in a survey by Willis Towers Watson said they would be hybrid by 2023).
But has flexible working played out in the way advocates had hoped? While many have celebrated the potential benefits, others have expressed concerns that working from home has only exacerbated traditional gender roles, undoing years-worth of progress in the blink of an eye. And has the pressure to work from home meant that fewer women will be returning to the workplace, where the all-important networking and ‘managing upward’ work is done that often results in recognition and promotion?
The shift to more flexible working clearly brings benefits – not least the legitimisation of remote work for all employees, regardless of gender. In a recent study, “COVID-19, Flexible Working, and Implications for Gender Equality in the United Kingdom”, researchers found the pandemic had helped to reduce ‘flexibility stigma’ – negative perceptions around employees (both male and female) working flexibly for family reasons.
According to the study, flexible working policies have also been shown to decrease the likelihood of women going part-time or leaving work altogether, helping them to stay in higher-paid jobs and more senior positions.
“Much of the gender pay gap and other gender inequalities in the labour markets can be attributed to the fact that women are likely to drop out of the labour market and move into part-time jobs, which are generally low-paid and without many opportunities for career progression, after childbirth,” wrote the researchers. “Thus, the expansion of flexible working opportunities for all workers would be a very welcome step in the right direction.”
Crissy Powers (EMBA 2013), a Cambridge Executive MBA graduate and Senior HR Director at Mars, agrees that the shift to more flexible working is likely to have a positive impact. “Hybrid working is a great thing for gender parity overall,” she says. “The need or desire for flexibility is no longer a working parents’ or working mothers’ topic. Our experience through COVID has been the ultimate experiment in proving that remote work is productive, and this is a huge step forward.”
Exacerbating gender roles
Yet while some believe the working-from-home revolution could help even out the playing field – giving men a chance to take on more household and childcare responsibilities while taking the onus off women – research suggests women are still bearing the brunt of both duties.
McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report found that mothers in dual-career couples were twice as likely as men to spend more than five extra hours a day on domestic chores compared to pre-pandemic. Meanwhile in a survey by UN Women, 28% of females asked said they were carrying out more household work than before the pandemic (compared to only 16% of men), adding domestic distractions to working life.
Songya Kesler (MBA 2015), a Cambridge MBA graduate who now runs a leadership consultancy and co-founded a training company, believes the remote-working trend has indeed “exacerbated traditional gender roles,” with more time at home to take on childcare and household duties and a blurring of boundaries between work and home life.
“I look at what I’ve observed in my clients and colleagues, and the short answer is that parental duties aren’t necessarily being equally shared,” she says. “I’d say among my male colleagues, there’s still the idea that this is my office, and the kids aren’t allowed in.”
A study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that over lockdown, mothers were significantly more likely to be interrupted by their children than fathers. Working remotely with children in the background obviously brings its challenges.
With more children at home as a result of school closures, its perhaps little surprise that many women considered reducing their hours or giving up work altogether during the pandemic; according to McKinsey, one in four female employees (including those in senior positions) considered stepping out of or slowing down their careers in the midst of the pandemic, and women overall were 1.3 times more likely to think about stepping out of the workforce than men.
Returning to the office
So, what does this mean when it comes to employees returning to the office?
Given the apparent presence of these traditional gender roles, some have argued that women may be more inclined than men to stay at home if given the option. A research paper by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), Management Transformed, found that among employees currently working virtually, 69% of mothers said they wanted to work at least one day from home post-pandemic, compared to only 56% of fathers. A recent BBC article went so far as to say offices could end up being “men-dominated”.
That imbalance could bring its own issues, including lack of visibility that could hamper career progression, according to Stella Pachidi, Assistant Professor in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School. “I think if you see someone more often, you’re more inclined to perceive that person as more hardworking, to reach out to them for advice and to consider their opinions, even if it’s only subconscious,” she says.
“If you’re working from home significantly, you can also end up with ‘information asymmetry’ – having less access to information that is informally shared in the workplace,” she says. “Often that information is valuable and may be used for strategic decision-making. So, if we assume that women may choose to work from home more than men, then women may indeed be disadvantaged and miss out on important information and potential career opportunities.”
Combatting the issues
To combat this, Pachidi believes it’s crucial for organisations operating a hybrid model to find virtual ways of allowing this kind of information-sharing.
“If organisations choose to go hybrid, they need to ensure the watercooler effect that you have face-to-face is enabled,” she says. “Organisations need to institutionalise some sort of virtual interaction that takes place on a regular basis.
“They should also think about ensuring women can access networking events and other opportunities,” she says. “Pre-pandemic, events would often happen after work, right when working mothers might need to return home because of parental responsibilities. With more employees now working from home, that’s likely to be exasperated, so we need to look at when and where these events are taking place; should we have certain days when everyone is in together and arrange events on these days, for example?”
There are of course other ways of addressing these issues – creating uniform policies to ensure both men and women are present for an equal amount of time is one example.
But fundamentally, we need to recognise that there may be potential biases towards those choosing to work from home and address that, says Kesler.
“I think it’s important to accept that you have these subconscious biases, and that colleagues who are not able to be in the office in person may be disadvantaged, so you can take measures to ensure it doesn’t negatively impact their career progression,” she says.
“There are little things you can do; for example, one tip I got from a behavioural science centre is that if you have a hybrid virtual and in-person meeting, go to the people on Zoom first before listening to what the people in person have to say,” she says. “It’s just small things like that that can help build inclusivity.”
Pachidi believes we also need to look at how employees’ work is evaluated to ensure visibility for those working remotely as well as those in the office. “Evaluation structures and incentives are important with more and more people working from home,” she says. “I think aligning the evaluation criteria to accommodate for the fact that people may not have the same visibility or the same access to information is important.”
But ultimately, change needs to go beyond just individual organisations to a deeper societal level, challenging traditional gender roles – for example by equalising maternity and paternity leave – and targeting the long-hours culture that researchers have termed a “masculine” ideal.
Some policymakers have already taken action. In June, for example, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) issued an opinion to prevent teleworking from “[exacerbating] the unequal distribution of unpaid care and domestic work between women and men and for it to be an engine for promoting gender equality.” G20 countries have meanwhile adopted a Ministerial Declaration and roadmap on remote working focused on the same issue, with suggested policy recommendations.
Pachidi believes there’s still more to be done, however. “I think creating the structures and providing more financial support in ways that support people to be able to work in equal ways is crucial,” she says.
“If you have to pick your kids up at 15:30 because there aren’t enough after-school clubs available for example, then it’s an issue – it prevents you from being able to work altogether, or you work from home and then suffer from lack of visibility,” she says. “Women want to have equal access to work. It’s not about making their lives easier – it’s about creating the structures that enables them to have equal opportunities.”
Only when we have those structures in place, addressing fundamental societal issues and challenging deeply rooted cultural norms, will we start to see real gender parity in the workplace.
In the meantime, organisations will need to think hard about how to implement hybrid-working policies and ensure employees (whether male or female) aren’t discriminated against if they choose to take up remote working.
If they play it right, we might just see the type of equalising opportunities advocates of flexible working have long believed in. If they don’t, we could easily see the scales tip the other way. Only time will tell how reality plays out.