For Anna Whitehouse, forced remote working in the context of a global pandemic was worlds away from what she set out to achieve when she began Flex Appeal in 2016. However, the way that workers adapted during the lockdowns proved that there was potential for change.
Today, we’re delving into the world of flexible working and the part it could play in achieving gender equality in the workplace.
Fixing the system
For so long, the idea of breaking out of the confines of nine-to-five felt unimaginable. Commuting to an office for a rigid eight hours, five days a week was just the way things were done. And it felt like the way they always had been. When the pandemic hit, however, we were forced into flexibility. Many of us had no choice but to try something new – remote working. And despite what the sceptics had always said – it seemed to work.
Now, there is a greater push not only for continued remote working but for a way of working that is flexible to individual needs so that people’s jobs can be moulded around the demands of family life.
When Whitehouse first teamed up with Sir Robert McAlpine to campaign for wider access to flexible working, she was eager to dispel outdated expectations.
“Our employers are oafs,” she writes in her blog, Mother Pukka, “unimaginative, overly cautious, and unwilling to think beyond the nine-five.”
This unwillingness has historically been an issue for a lot of workers – in 2016, nearly nine million UK workers said they wanted to work flexibly but didn’t have the option. However, Whitehouse insists that parents bear the brunt of this reluctance, calling upon her own experiences.
“It was just 15 minutes. That’s all I needed to pick up my daughter from nursery on time. I was working as a senior copywriter and my flexible working request was rejected because it might ‘open the floodgates’ to others with caring responsibilities.”
While constraints on flexible working can put pressure on all parents, women are the most likely to suffer. This was especially true during the lockdowns when women were found to be providing two-thirds more childcare than men.
What’s more, one survey of 13,000 mothers conducted by Flex Appeal alongside Trades Union Congress (TUC), found that one in two mothers were turned down for flexible working and 86% of those with a flexible working pattern felt discriminated against at work.
For Whitehouse, fighting back against the stigma of flexible working is essential for tackling the gender pay gap and achieving equality in the workplace. She explains:
“The suggestion is that flexible working is a privilege, not a necessity and that working from home is an excuse for slacking off from the job. These words are incredibly damaging to the progress that’s being made to level the playing field.”
She goes on to say, “we are in a system set up for women to fail, to an extent, and I think we need companies to help us bridge that gender pay gap.”
Paving the way
As well as striving for equality for working women now, Whitehouse is intent on changing the way we work to pave the way for the next generation. She explains that she wants to be a strong role model for her daughter and let her know that it is possible to have both a family and a career:
“I hope that she sees that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. That flexibly isn’t an entitlement. That it’s the only way to bridge that gaping hole of gender inequality.”
Some countries are already leading the way and setting an example which Whitehouse urges the UK to follow. And it isn’t just about women – flexibility for men, especially dads, can also set a strong example and encourage gender equality.
In Sweden for example, there is greater workplace flexibility when it comes to maternity and paternity leave. One Swedish study even found that for every month a father took paid leave, the mother’s future earnings increased by 7%.
As well as easing the strain on parents and carers, Whitehouse and McAlpine are insistent that flexible working makes economic sense.
According to their 2021 Flexonomics Report, flexible working could unlock £55bn for the UK economy and up to 51,200 new jobs. The report explains that flexible working reduces absence rates and helps to attract new talent (with 92% of young people wanting flexible working).
As well all these factors relating to the economy and gender equality, for Whitehouse, flexible working is fundamentally about inclusivity:
“When you take away the walls and the commute, you let more people with disabilities in. When you take away the rigid hours, you enable people with caring responsibilities and with mental health issues in.”
“When you advertise flexibility in roles, you open the door to greater diversity in the workplace. It’s not about where someone is sitting, it’s about who you are including at the table.”
The workplace is evolving – there’s no denying that anymore. The pandemic has left us at a crossroads, deciding whether to force our way back to the old rigid nine-to-five or embrace a culture of flexibility, tolerance, and understanding. It’s time for companies to commit to a new way of working.