The Future of the Workplace – women’s roles
Women's professional advancement in the pandemic
Dr Mariann Hardey is Associate Professor of Marketing at Durham University Business School. She studies tech inequalities, is a lead for the Creative Fuse North East project and the author of ‘The Culture of Women in Tech, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman’ (Emerald Press, 2020). In this article, part of the Chamber’s recent Future of the Workplace report, she writes about the impact of the pandemic on professional women and inequalities in domestic duties, caring responsibilities and workloads.
Tonight at 9.49 pm is the 13th time I have sat down to write this article. 13th, because I am primarily working evenings and weekends, and like many other parents, I am, frankly, exhausted with homeschooling. My approach is to make my day as flexible as I can manage. I am a professional career woman with a caring role, working from home during the pandemic.
Work “hacks” during a pandemic
“I wonder what “hacks” you’re using to stack up your “work” hours? “A colleague asked, worried about a tweet I had retweeted. The retweet was from a student concerned her lecturer had a day that started at 6 a.m. and ended in front of the screen sometime around 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Here are some of my work hacks cultivated from the experience of being a full-time mum to my four-year-old daughter (out of school at the time of writing this article), a full-time academic with full research and teaching load, and as Durham University’s Principle Investigator to a multi-million project coordinated between five different institutions:
1. Delay sending the emails I write after my daughter’s bedtime until early in the morning to appear to be present during normal work hours
2. On tough days, take chunks of time away from the screen, so I have time to think and adequately respond to work and homeschooling priorities
3. For Zoom meetings, put these on speaker and play tag or hide and seek to keep my daughter occupied with less screen time guilt
4. Do most of my work casually on my phone while my daughter plays near me – I hate this method
5. Use my online diary to book in breaks and all the homeschooling into my calendar to set out my availability
“Women are more likely to give up their jobs to take on household responsibilities. Social norms continue to over-emphasise women’s place in the home.”
Unpaid work at home
Flexible hours and remote working have signalled a new “normal”.” In the early days of the pandemic, there appeared to be a genuine shift in attention concerning the state of work in the home and caring responsibilities that could be divided up more equally within households. However, several studies carried out during the pandemic indicate regressing family structures. The United Nations study warning about the state of gender equality: “with the spread of the Covid19 pandemic, even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.”
While the spotlight is on flexible working, allowing many parents to sustain some form of professional role, there has been a significant shift of women onto furlough and out of work. Women are more likely to give up their jobs to take on household responsibilities. Social norms continue to over-emphasise women’s place in the home. Women are likely to have fewer educational qualifications, less prestigious careers, and lower expectations of earnings.
A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that British mothers were 23% more likely than fathers to be temporarily or permanently unemployed during the pandemic. One measure of how damaging the pandemic is on women’s professional advancement will be their ability to return to professional roles. How many will fall into the gaps in the many forms of policy provision?
“Regardless of education, career experience and seniority, women are more adversely affected by the current working conditions.”
A most vexing problem
Economists have played an essential role during the pandemic, calculating the costs saved with increased flexibility and remote working provision. The experts inform us on economic matters concerning national and global recovery. However, the much-praised furlough scheme of the UK Government denies support to self-employed mothers. Further evidence of the marginalisation of women from economic and political support during the pandemic.
I am reminded of a contentious law paper by Chong Soo Pyun, published in 1969, stating the monetary value of the “housewife” (as was the popular term) as an “imponderable […] posing a most vexing problem.”
Other sectors report high-earning women with caring roles who have sought to maintain their careers during the pandemic feel that they are falling even further behind their male counterparts. A BBC article reports on the “strong anecdotal evidence of a trend toward senior women quitting their jobs,” prompting a close friend to comment how she and her law colleagues are being “flung further into the perilous pit and trodden down”.”
In academic, professional circles, early in the pandemic, Elizabeth Hannon, Deputy Editor at The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, tweeted on 18th April about how women submitted fewer papers during the coronavirus crisis. “Negligible number of submissions to the journal from women in the last month. Never seen anything like it.”
The above paints a pretty bleak picture. Regardless of education, career experience and seniority, women are more adversely affected by the current working conditions and will continue to be post-pandemic.
One observation is the new opportunities for remote and flexible working and adequately recognise and support individuals undertaking unpaid care work. While remote and flexible working alleviates the need to travel into the workplace, they do not provide targeted support to hard-hit parents. The lack of proper support and policies fails to reflect the divergence in households where women spend three times as many hours as men in unpaid care and domestic work.
A bit of a leveller?
Outside of politics and inside homes, there appears to be a glimmer of light where households have the opportunity to share about domestic duties, caring responsibilities and workloads. A study I am conducting with women in leadership roles in the technology sector demonstrates the need for more open dialogue and rapid response to support long-term flexible and remote work.
Many promises are being made concerning career advancement in other professional settings where different roles due to the pandemic have had to be prioritised. Ensuring transparency around the level of support and new career advancement pathways will be crucial to retaining parents in professional roles. We need to ensure women can see the light out of the perilous pit and acknowledge the different levels of inequalities women and men face.