Business Leader’s Guide to the Future of Work: Is flexible work particularly revolutionary for women?

The rise of flexible work, which came as a result of the pandemic, has revolutionised the working world. In this three-part series, Business Leader explores the implications of remote working and what the future of work might really look like.

Historically, one of the biggest barriers women have faced in the working world has been the lack of flexibility in the workplace.

Working mothers for generations have been shamed for leaving work early for school runs, or judged for not working overtime like their peers – in some cases, these acts have been labelled as a form of ‘absenteeism’.

In Western society, only a century ago women were prohibited from owning property, opening a bank account, or pursuing legal or civil service jobs. During this time, women had been expected to dominate the private sphere, which included taking care of the home and raising children.

Arguably, when women entered the public sphere, this paradigm shifted, leading to them balancing the act of being the primary caregiver with having a job. The responsibility of being the ‘main caregiver’ doesn’t fall solely onto the laps of women anymore, and workplaces have become more accommodating as a whole over time. Despite this, the fact that many working women remain the ‘main caregiver’ has been significant in preventing women from progressing and excelling in the professional world.

Dr. Heejung Chung, Labour Sociologist from The University of Kent, describes how women have typically been excluded from the labour market due to caregiving responsibilities. She said: “Before workers had this kind of control, a lot of parents – especially mothers – had to drop out of the labour market because of the certain restrictions work had with the combination of family life.

“For example, with school hours. If you had to pick your children up at three o’clock and had to work at five, you just couldn’t manage the two. Now, if you have the flexibility to start work a bit early and then end it at three o’clock, you can do your school pick-ups.”

There is no doubt that flexible working has revolutionised the working world. Companies outsourcing resources to foreign countries has opened up the possibilities for how businesses can be structured. While more flexibility has allowed employees to work in a way that’s tailored to their needs. But considering the historical impact of rigid working environments on working women, particularly working mothers – is the introduction of flexible working particularly revolutionary for women?

Is flexible working really empowering for women?

The rise of flexible working as a result of the pandemic has changed our global society and been empowering for a myriad of reasons. Working from home allows autonomy over work, builds trust between managers and their teams, and can increase the productivity and well-being of workers.

But for parents, the ability to work flexibly can have a major impact on their parenting, social life and opportunities to excel at work. In addition to being able to shape a working day around caregiving responsibilities such as school pick-ups, if a child is unwell, parents can integrate child-care into their working day without taking time off work. This can have profound consequences for parents, especially considering that employees have historically been judged for leaving the workplace because of parenting responsibilities.

In the labour market, employees typically try to represent themselves as an ‘ideal worker’. Dr. Chung explains: “An ‘ideal worker’ is what employers consider ‘ideal’ – they are perpetually working, never get sick and don’t have any other interests or responsibilities outside of work.” Because parents have responsibilities that are likely going to impact their work-life, they face barriers not experienced by their non-parent peers – prohibiting themselves from excelling professionally and stopping them from representing themselves as ‘hard working’.

Hazel McShane and Amber Probyn, Founders of Peequal feel flexible working has expanded opportunities and freedom for working women. Hazel said: “Over the last few years, we’ve seen flexible working expand employment opportunities and improve the representation of women and mums in the workplace. But we still need solutions that support women to maintain a healthy work-life balance.”

Amber said: “As a young female founder in my 20s, flexible working gives me the freedom to plan a family in the future. This can help empower women to choose to have a family and career in a way that works for them.”

Tash Grossman, CEO and Co-founder of Slip, feels flexible working has stopped her from having to choose between family and work: “As a young woman who’s still relatively early in my career, the rise in flexible working is super promising for my future. In the past, it may have felt that having kids would be the ‘end’ of a career, and if not, I’d have to make that trade-off between my career or spending time with my family. Flexible working has provided a whole new way of working that means women, and men can have the best of both worlds.”

Society has changed. We have largely moved past heteronormative ideas that there are two opposing genders with associated natural roles. Despite this, women disproportionately remain the primary caregivers – roughly 64% of mothers are the main caregiver compared to 36% of fathers – and therefore benefit more from the working from home revolution.

Riannon Palmer, Managing Director and MD at Lem-Uhn, feels flexible working has meant women don’t have to choose between being a mother and having a successful career. She said: “For many years women have been told they can’t have it all, with TV and films such as The Devil Wears Prada and Desperate Housewives, and the media reinstating this notion that women must choose between a successful career or home life. The rise of flexible working helps many working mothers to be able to balance their careers with home lives. However, they must still have a supportive and understanding boss as well as an understanding wider society.

“I recently had a call with a client who was joined on the call by her toddler who was off nursery sick. She apologised profusely for having to look after her daughter while working, but rather than seeing this as a negative, I thought it was empowering to see a working mother who, when an unexpected thing came up, was managing to juggle her work and childcare responsibilities.”

Is it too much of a pervasive & structural issue?

At the end of 2021, Bank of England policymaker Catherine Mann expressed concerns that as people returned to work post-pandemic, often in a hybrid workplace, women would suffer the consequence of working from home more than men – in what she described as a ‘she-cession’.

Speaking at an event for women in Finance hosted by Finance News, Mann expressed that working from home prevents spontaneous conversations in the office, which are important for career progression. She said: “Virtual platforms are way better than they were even five years ago. But the extemporaneous, spontaneity – those are hard to replicate in a virtual setting.”

“Women aren’t returning to work to the same extent as men, and when they are working, they are more likely to be working from home. Issues include difficulty accessing childcare, and disruption to schooling because of the pandemic has led to more women continuing to work remotely.

“There is the potential for two tracks,” she continued. “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.”

The realisation that even with flexible work more prominent, women could still suffer from a lack of career progression hints at a systemic issue of an imbalance of care duties amongst men and women, rather than working from home as an all-encompassing solution.

Riannon continued: “There is still much more needed to truly make it an equal playing field for parents of any gender identity. Fathers are still allocated less responsibility by society while mothers are expected to live up to higher standards. A few years ago, split parental leave was introduced, however, it hasn’t been adopted widely, meaning women are still expected to take longer off work after the birth of a child and fathers are also not given the opportunity to bond with their child at that young age.

“Furthermore, in an ideal world, there would be government-funded creches so the expense of childcare didn’t lead to so many women having to choose between a job they love which pays less than childcare would cost or giving it up to care for their child – a responsibility generally left to women.”