Switch to more home working after Covid ‘will make gender inequality worse’

Men are more likely to be in the office after the pandemic while women become less visible to employers

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The permanent switch to more home working following the pandemic will cause rising gender inequality in the workplace, according to experts, unless employers carefully monitor their new working policies to make sure women aren’t disadvantaged.

Traditionally, more women than men – particularly those with children or caring responsibilities – have requested flexible working. The switch to working from home necessitated by coronavirus lockdowns has, 15 months on, resulted in a permanent change in corporate culture, to the extent that the government is considering legislating to make home working the “default” option.

During Covid, millions of previously office-based employees enjoyed more family time and tasted life without the commute. Earlier in the pandemic, there were hopes that the wider adoption of remote working might remove the gender divide, while also reducing the so-called “maternity penalty” and getting rid of a culture of presenteeism.

Yet 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.

“Employers now see that employees don’t have to show face time,” said Professor Cary Cooper, a psychologist from Alliance Manchester Business School. “The big question we don’t have the answer to is, during this 15-month period, have enough men said to themselves life isn’t just about work. Did they begin to reprioritise and understand how important the family is?”

Cooper, who is also president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 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.”

On Friday, the accountancy firm Deloitte became the latest large office-occupier to embrace an ultra-flexible future, telling its 20,000 UK employees they can decide when to visit the office.

Leaving the choice of workplace entirely in the hands of staff is a worry for Joeli Brearley, founder of the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, which supports women facing maternity or pregnancy discrimination. “Those with caring responsibilities or with disabilities will tend to stay at home and other employees will likely go into the office,” she said.

“Those at home will look like they’re less committed to their job, they won’t have as a good a relationship with their manager, the person that can promote them and give them a pay rise,” Brearley said.

Jane* works in a managerial role in the hospitality sector in London, and requested a permanent move to remote working for part of the week, after successfully working from home during lockdown. However, the mother-of-one believes her flexible working arrangement has already scuppered a promotion. “I can show the results of my work, but it seems to be forgotten because I’m not there five days a week,” Jane said. “It’s that old-school mentality, that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re in the office”.

Since returning from maternity leave last summer, Siobhan*, who works in operations for a small company in the East Midlands, has occasionally worked from home because of a lack of childcare during the pandemic. Without any discussion, some of her responsibilities have been removed. “I feel like I’ve been demoted,” Siobhan said. “It’s not a reflection on the quality of my work. There hasn’t been much support.”

Most employment experts agree that organisations will have to monitor closely how new working policies are adopted by staff once coronavirus restrictions are lifted. “Companies have to take this seriously and build a cultural model in their organisation,” said Katy Fridman, founder of talent platform Flexible Working People. “The onus is on the employer.”

“There has to be encouragement across the board [for flexible working] from seniority to entry-level staff and whatever gender, so there isn’t a disparity, or this could very well set women back.”

Women were more likely than men to reduce their flexible working demands to align with the perceived expectations of their manager or employer, according to a recent study by psychologists at the Behavioural Insights Team, the so-called “nudge unit”, which works with government.

“If we really care about diversity and inclusion, the study shows there is difference, regardless of the reason behind it,” said Hannah Burd, principal adviser at the team.

“We really encourage employers, whatever policy decision they make, to monitor the impact, and see if they do need to adjust it, to ensure women, or junior people, are getting more access to opportunities.”

* Not her real name

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