Mother and author Anna Whitehouse - also known under her online alias @mother_pukka - has been campaigning for flexible working for years. In the light of a pandemic that has pushed us into a forced period of remote working, Anna pens the importance of implementing agile working for good in our new world
I’m currently on maternity leave, and it’s not how I imagined. Of course, I didn’t anticipate homeschooling, fearing for my family and friend’s physical and mental wellbeing or taking a financial hit as a freelancer – but I especially didn’t imagine I would be sitting at home and playing with my seven and three-year-old daughters, feeling terrified that their future careers could not just be disrupted, but ruined.
The Covid-19 pandemic is massively setting back women’s workplace equality. First of all, more women than men work in professions such as retail or hospitality, the sectors hardest hit by the virus, and this means women are more likely to be on furlough and are at greater risk to have no job to go back to. Those that do will still find themselves in dire straits due to a dip in income.
Gender pay gap
While women wait for these negative repercussions, they are at home, bearing the brunt of extra childcare and housework (for no money, naturally). I conducted a poll on Instagram, asking my followers if they had picked up more unpaid labour behind the scenes than their partner. Out of the 2000 who responded, 87 per cent said yes.
I wasn’t surprised to see this, because men’s jobs are deemed more important, and therefore they become exempt from additional duties like domestic labour. Why are men’s jobs deemed more important? Because they are paid more, thanks to the gender pay gap.
In March, the government said due to the impact of Covid-19 on employers, companies were exempt from filing their gender pay gap reporting. So many opted out when the legal requirement was lifted, showing that they are not being transparent or progressive when it comes to gender equality. And what truly terrifies me is that we’re going to return to this two-tier system, where men go to work and women stay at home, and not because of choice – and we’re never going to close the gender pay gap. Instead, it will get wider.
I founded Flex Appeal, a campaign to advocate the idea that flexible working is the future for everyone, in a bid to reduce stress-related burnout and increase productivity and revenue, in 2016 after I was denied it at the company I was working for at the time. I was told it would ‘open the floodgates’ to others seeking it.
Positively, the pandemic opened the floodgates without giving employers the choice to reject or condemn it. Hopefully, this time has killed off some sceptics who didn’t believe women could work from home successfully. But let’s be clear: we’re not working from our homes remotely, we’re working at home in the context of a pandemic. They are very different. I continue to urge everyone to see this time as a period of enforced remote working, not flexible working. Trying to do your job with low WIFI and a child begging for your attention, as well coping with the grief of losing friends or family, is incomparable to having a proper flexible working set up.
An additional positive is just before lockdown, Flex Appeal had investment from construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine. The company is committed to driving the flexible working conversation because it has noted the high rates of suicide among men on construction sites. Flexible working (and, in turn, improving mental health) is a key to reducing that number. I can’t stress enough that flexible working is not just for mothers wanting to see more of their kids, it’s for people, all people.
And speaking of all people, I have found it so difficult hearing from people living with disabilities during this time. They say that overnight the world adjusted to working from home, proving that they could have been included in the workforce. Businesses just didn’t want the ‘hassle’.
The conversation needed isn’t ‘should’ we implement the belief that flexible working is the future – of course we should – but ‘how’ can we implement it. For the majority of white-collar workers, taking their laptop to the kitchen table is enough. But not all sectors can work remotely. NHS staff, for example, need to physically be in work to save lives – but they can still work flexibly by choosing the shifts that suit their lives, rather than being told when they will be working and for how long.
Change the working world
Now is the time for us to change the working world as we know it, and for employers to be more human. The way people are managed plays a huge role in mental wellbeing. If employers gave their staff, who they have recruited and believe to be trustworthy and decent, the choice to work from home as many days a week as they choose, we will only see positive outcomes.
As mentioned, I’m on maternity leave, and yes, my littlest is three years old. When she was only three weeks old I felt immense financial pressure to go back to work because I was a freelancer, and you don’t receive paid maternity leave in the same way you do when you are in a fixed role. Every day spent at home reclaiming my time with her is a reminder about how urgently we need to change the workplace system and see flexible working as the future. There is no better time than now.