Over the course of the pandemic, employees were faced with shifting professional and personal priorities against a backdrop of uncertainty and, for many people, hugely challenging circumstances.
As part of this collective shift, female employees were often faced with the unequal burden of unpaid work, such as care giving, which threatened to undo years of hard work to address the gender gap in many workplaces.
Women were also more likely than men to be put on furlough or lose their job due to occupying more part time roles.
But as we learn to live with the virus, and as many people start returning to the office and “normal” life, now is a pertinent time to reflect on the past 18 months. We can choose to reset our perceptions and models of work to help close the gender gap in the workplace once and for all.
What is flexible working?
Flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs. This can include patterns such as remote working, flexitime and job sharing.
Pre-pandemic, it was the case that any employee working at a company for a minimum of 26 weeks could make a 'statutory application' for flexible working, which an employer could accept or reject. But despite this, less than three in 10 employers ran flexible working schemes for employees.
Today, there’s been a radical shift in how staff and business leaders view flexible working.
So much so, the Government recently opened a consultation in a proposed bid to reform flexible working regulations. If approved, employees will earn the right to request flexible working from day one of their employment.
The pandemic has sped up the flexible working journey that employers were already on, such that it’s almost leapfrogged companies into the 21st century from a work-life balance perspective. Those companies who aren't moving with the times and fail to adapt to the new status quo are likely to find themselves left behind in the war for talent, given the current skills shortages.
The unequal burden of unpaid work
According to the Beamery Talent Index, only 40 percent of women said they would be happy to return to the office full-time after the pandemic, compared to 63 percent of men. But this gap isn’t to do with passion, ability or dedication.
Instead, it has a lot to do with the fact that, despite progress, women are still more likely to spend more time carrying out unpaid work, either as primary caregivers for their children or elderly family members, or on household and domestic duties. This is why many women leave the workforce entirely after having children, take extended career breaks or choose to work part-time.
The increased flexibility that comes with remote working can help everyone achieve greater work-life balance, which is typically made more difficult by commuting to and working from an office.
The shift in work life has also allowed some men to support more at home than they were previously able to. Experts have suggested that men are doing more caregiving and household chores than they did pre-pandemic, and with changes to flexible workplace policies, this could help nudge gender and workplace equality back in the right direction.
For those who aren't caregivers, the gender differences are less obvious. Many people are benefitting from hybrid working as they can pursue outside interests and live in different locations, while some have found they’re simply more productive at home.
For the technology industry, which has been working hard to close its gender gap, the post-pandemic landscape represents a new opportunity to address the underlying causes and ensure that roles and policies cater equally to both men and women.
The progression conundrum
Despite many women favouring flexible work and working from home over a return to the office, the question of career progression still stands.
In a 2017 study, one in three respondents revealed they felt that their careers suffered due to flexible working patterns. Meanwhile, a quarter felt they were given fewer opportunities and missed out on progression and promotion opportunities.
If this remains the case and more women adopt flexible working than choose to go back to the office full-time, what does this mean for their career progression? If left unchecked, there is a possibility the gender gap will widen instead of close, favouring those employees who are physically present in offices.
We know that when in the office, staff are generally more able to network and can make quick, informed decisions based on the opinions and contribution of those present.
They also benefit more from company culture and can benefit from a sense of community, with physical interaction adding another dimension to the working relationship. Encouraging women to spend some time in the office may well be of benefit.
Levelling the playing field is set to benefit everyone
Providing an inclusive work environment where women are valued equally is incredibly important. For example, not favouring people who work in the office over those who work from home and not insisting on early morning meetings during the school drop off times etc. It’s incumbent upon all leaders and managers to ensure equity, and listen and respond to any concerns raised.
For teams, having multi-skilled workers allows for flexible working to be easily accommodated, whilst effective connection and collaboration tools ensure they can build good working relationships from home or the office.
Meanwhile, individuals deserve the right to establish flexible work patterns that suit them, and employers must respond by offering well thought-out technologies, policies and solutions.
Women who have previously cut down their hours to go part-time may now decide that they can return to work full-time, rejigging their hours around childcare, as one example. This would help companies retain women who would otherwise have left the workforce or chosen to work reduced hours.
While the future remains uncertain, what we do know is that we have a huge opportunity to reassess how and where we work through the lens of gender, health, personal circumstance and preference.
Companies who grab this opportunity with both hands will benefit from greater talent retention and employee satisfaction. And as a result, combined with other innovative practices and initiatives, the gender gap in tech, and the workplace overall, can become a lesson learnt and overcome.