Why flexible working is crucial for gender equality

26th October 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is having a devastating effect on gender equality says Sabiha Azad.

Evidence shows women are not only bearing the brunt of childcare and housework but are also more likely to be in lower paid and insecure jobs.

Research in the UK, conducted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), found that due to the pandemic – 90% of working mothers have had to increase their childcare responsibilities, 30% were now unable to work 9am-5pm and 16% have actually had to reduce their working hours to look after their children.

Many experts have criticised the stance of employers who are inflexible to agile and remote working options, as research shows that employees who work from home are more productive. A study of 6000 workers by academics at Cardiff University found that 90% of those that are homebased would like to continue working from home in some capacity in future.

Nevertheless, the lack of flexibility offered is marked in many cases and has had a disproportionate impact on women. For example, industries such as call centres, which overwhelmingly employ women, could be doing much more to support them and ‘build back better’.

The Office for National Statistics found women make up 67% of the workforce in call centres and that 4% of the UK’s working population are employed in them.

Yet call centres have widely documented high turnover rates and high levels of staff absences. Some workers have claimed that a call centre job is one of the most stressful, difficult and inflexible when it come to a happy work-life balance, particularly given the unsocial hours that can be involved and commutes to remote office locations.

Historically many call centres have not been open to flexible working to counter this, despite the fact research has shown that when home working is offered, staff are more likely to be retained.

There are however some forward-thinking employers in the field leading the way – creating flexible working patterns and making staff wellbeing central to their businesses.

The Meic Helpline; an advocacy helpline for under 25’s in Wales has incorporated remote working since its inception 11 years ago.

Stephanie Hoffman, Head of Services, champions remote working;

“It makes absolute good business sense. What could be better than a motivated, productive, and effective worker? I have worked as a CEO; frontline shift worker; freelancer. In all these roles, a balance between home and office working has given me flexibility and life-work balance, making me much more effective, productive, and motivated in my personal and professional life. I have also seen the overall wellbeing impact on colleagues, family, and friends from Covid-19 changes. I hope this shift towards home working is one of the longer lasting and sustainable legacies of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Switched-on employers also realise that one of the biggest advantages to working remotely is business continuity – establishing a geographically dispersed workforce means there is less likelihood of widespread disruptions.

Indeed, during the current pandemic, organisations that were office based were widely impacted by lockdown measures, whereas helplines that offered remote working continued as normal.

Additionally, by removing geographical restraints, organisations can access a much larger pool of candidates. These individuals can be from more rural areas and the jobs overall are more appealing and accessible to those with caring responsibilities, as well as women with disabilities who encounter disproportionate barriers in the workforce.

Women make up a large proportion of unpaid labour, and the lack of support from employers often results in career breaks which have wide financial implications for women. By implementing flexible and remote working, women can manage their own schedules that suit them, ensuring that no part of their life is neglected. It provides a more equal playing field for women overall, particularly those with caring concerns.

Elise Gould, Senior Economist at the Economic Policy Institute, backs this point as one of the biggest supporters of remote working, she says; “it enables working women to make a schedule around their other responsibilities.”

There are strong business benefits too, as enabling staff to choose their hours can give employers the ability to offer services spanning 24 hours, which for call-centres in invaluable.

Given the business and employee benefits that a move to greater flexible, agile and remote working patterns can create, the rigidity of some employers and their refusal to consider them for the long term raises questions on how they value women’s work.