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Will a return to the office work for women?

Author: Rosamund Urwin

Published: 22 Jul 2021

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Renowned Times and Evening Standard journalist Rosamund Urwin examines whether a full exit from WFH would only work for half of us.

During a recent Zoom meeting with her bank's advisors, Anne Boden recalls that a little boy strolled in and handed his lawyer mother a cup of tea. The founder of the challenger bank Starling sees this moment as indicative of how work in the financial services sector could be for women post-pandemic - so long as companies are willing to embrace change.

"Zoom is quite an equal place – we're all in the same size boxes - and the men don’t speak over the women, because most of the time the men are on mute," says Boden. "And we're allowed to bring our families and personal lives in. Isn't it a wonderful new world?" Boden, 61, just wishes that the working from home revolution had come earlier: "I spent my life in the office: first in and last out. It was just presenteeism." 

With staff beginning to flock back to offices, however, the question remains of whether this revolution will turn out to be fleeting. Further, the extent to which the pandemic has pushed back progress for women in the City in other ways is being exposed. Studies have shown that it dealt a triple blow: many more women than men left the workforce or reduced their hours due to caring responsibilities, women were more likely to be made redundant than men, and Covid-19 amplified the already-unequal split of domestic labour between the sexes.

Joint research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the UCL Institute of Education found last year that mothers were 47% more likely to have either permanently lost their jobs or to have quit, and were 14% more likely to have been put on furlough than fathers. Women were also more likely to be forced to multi-task: almost half of mothers' hours were spent juggling childcare or other responsibilities with work, compared with under a third of fathers' hours. All these factors combined to mean that mothers in two-parent households were only doing an average of a third of the uninterrupted paid-work of fathers. 

In PwC's annual Women In Work Index, published in March, the accountancy firm warned that the damage wreaked by Covid-19 on workplace equality could take almost a decade to repair. 

Brenda Trenowden, a partner specialising in diversity and inclusion consulting for PwC, says: "Women who left the workforce won't necessarily come back easily, and some companies used the pandemic to restructure, so they will have tightened up [staffing] too."

The 30% Club, which campaigns for more women in boardrooms, held meetings every six weeks with chief executives to discuss this unchartered territory. Pavita Cooper, its deputy chair who is also the founder of the executive search firm More Difference, says that at the first few meetings, there were male chief executives - "people who hold it as a badge of honour that they never worked from home in a 30-year career" - who were finally seeing the benefits of home-working.

"The reality is that for a lot of men, their gains were no commuting, and being around their kids," says Cooper. "But the pressure points of helping with school work - especially when there was no live schooling or when children were self-isolating - that was falling predominantly on women." 

She believes, however, that the pandemic opened many men's eyes to the burden their wives or partners were carrying: "By being physically at home, men saw the emotional labour and the family admin: the white board list we compile in our heads all the time – maths test on Friday, and Johnny needs blue socks for rugby on Tuesday."

Due to the pandemic, the government suspended mandatory gender pay gap reporting. Trenowden and Cooper both believe that gaps will have widened over the past 18 months. "We'll find some regression on the good work we've done in the past 10 years," says Cooper. "And now companies will be having  conversations about talent, progression and pay - and so who will be rewarded? Will it be those who were online 7am to 7pm and attended every meeting, rather than the women who did most of the caring and family responsibilities?" 

Cooper also expects there will be less attention on the male dominance of boardrooms post-pandemic. In February, the 30% Club highlighted that there were no more all-male boards in the FTSE 350, but she says that this is not "job done": there are still 13 executive committees with no women, and many boards with only a single female member.

“Companies are very concerned about return to work and after [the death of] George Floyd, corporations - and rightly so - will have a heavy focus on race," Cooper says. "Organisations can only absorb so many initiatives in one go. If there is a big push on new ways of working and race, by default some of the conversation on gender will be quieter." Despite this, some financial institutions have made big commitments to gender equality during the pandemic: German financial services giant Deutsche Bank has promised to increase the share of women among its most senior executives to at least 30% by 2025, up from its current 24%.

The bosses of many UK financial services firms seem to have accepted hybrid working will continue post-pandemic. Among the City's biggest employers, the Bank of England, Deutsche Bank, accountancy firms Deloitte, PwC and KPMG and the asset management titan Schroders are all either embracing permanent flexible working, or consulting with staff about what a hybrid model - part-time at home, part-time in the office - would look like. 

Trenowden argues that the pandemic has removed the gender stigma of working from home. "Before everyone thought it was a female thing, a part-time thing, and about having kids," she says. "It has bust those myths. Now we have tonnes of men - as well as women - who want to enjoy the benefits of working from home. That's a positive." She also believes that it will result in a reduction in business travel, which will help women who had previously ruled out some jobs due to the extensive plane-hopping required.

But both Trenowden and Boden also warn that a hybrid model could create a two-tier system of staff. 

"What happens when eight people are in the office for a meeting and two are dialling in?" asks Trenowden. "I've experienced that at a board meeting I couldn't attend: everyone almost forgot about the people dialling in. You risk creating second class citizens who'll find it hard to contribute. They also miss out on networking and developing sponsors and the casual conversations before and after meetings. There is a risk of ‘out of sight, out of mind'. So companies need to have the data on who is coming back in and who isn't, and how that is affecting allocation of work, promotions and progressions."

Companies need to come up with smart solutions, she adds, pointing to the example of the Bank of England where a board meeting was held with some staff members present and others online: "Everyone had a screen in front of them and were dialled in, even those in the room. When someone wanted to speak, they had to click the raised hand [icon] and speak into the screen."

Boden is concerned that younger people and men will return to the office and those with families or caring responsibilities will stay at home. "This will result in a two-speed career," she says. "There'll be the people in the office getting the perks and promotions, and the people at home actually doing the work." 

She issues a rallying cry that this chance for a workplace revolution won't be overlooked. "We've now established that you can be career-minded, working from home. I spent forty years in the City, going in every day and what a pity!" she laughs. "Let’s not allow presenteeism to rear its ugly head again."