Debra Allcock Tyler: Flexible working could push gender equality back decades

We must embrace the practice but be aware of possible unintended consequences

I have always been interested in the science of unintended consequences. One of my favourite examples is road signs and pedestrian crossings.

It turns out there is evidence that these make roads less safe. For example, a study on a busy road showed that accidents dropped by 60 per cent after some traffic lights were removed.

We introduced things like speed signs, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings because we assumed it would make our roads safer. Common sense, right?

But it appears the opposite is true. No signs means fewer accidents.

The unintended consequence of visible road signs is that they make roads less safe – counterintuitive.

Whenever I come across something that seems both logical and the right thing to do, I am immediately alert to the unintended consequences. Which brings me to current conversations about flexible working.

The pandemic has undoubtedly forced changes to office-based working practices, which mean that many office-based workers no longer have to operate in an “in-the-office-Monday-to-Friday-nine-to-five” culture.

This has also meant a fairer distribution of chores at home. Men, like it or not (and, in fairness, many say they have liked it), have been enabled to participate more in home chores, childcare and caring duties. That’s clearly a good thing for equitable parenting.

Now we see flexible ways of working, where home and work can be better aligned for folk, being adopted by many organisations. And we’re embracing it because it seems the logical and right thing to do.

But, like the road signs, I foresee possible accidents ahead.

I vividly recall a study by the University of California from the 1980s. It was carried out around the time women began the push for better work-life balance and wanted to include men.

The study asked men about their attitudes to work-life balance. To my surprise, it turned out that the majority of men, when allowed to answer anonymously, felt their work-life balance was fine, despite long office hours.

According to the survey, they didn’t want to spend more time at home doing the chores, feeding the kids or battling with bedtimes.

Have men’s attitudes changed since then? Well, given most current studies still show that women still disproportionately carry the burden of home responsibilities, I’m not sure they have. (Please don’t #NotAllMen me!)

I recently read an article on the BBC website referencing a recent poll of 2,300 UK office-based workers, which showed 69 per cent of mothers want to work from home at least once a week after the pandemic, versus just 56 per cent of fathers.

So this passion for new flexibility, while very attractive on the surface, could have the unintended consequences of pushing equality back decades.

If mothers work from home more often than fathers, and employers allow people to do whatever they want, what might that mean for gender balance in the physical workplace?

If we simply allow unconsidered, unmanaged flexibility, will we end up with a physical workspace dominated by men, with all the advantages that confers on careers and opportunities?

Will we see pay, positions and power favouring men because they are in the room, walking to meetings together, sharing ideas by the kettle, popping into the pub when homewards?

We, as a sector, should think long and hard about the unintended consequences of the new flexibility in working.

Don’t get me wrong: it is better than the old ways and we should, indeed must, embrace it – but not without being highly alert to how damaging it might be to women, and what we can do to avoid that.

At the very least, we need to track what demographic in our charity has asked for home/work flexibility, and who is taking it up.

We need to ask ourselves what we can do to prevent working spaces being dominated by men, with all the advantages that confers, such as more access to senior leaders.

Are our paternity rights equitable? Do we encourage male staff to work from home as much as female staff do? Do we monitor it?

What about our criteria and processes for promotion? Have we built in ways of ensuring that office-based folk don’t somehow gain an advantage?

Can we do some work on unconscious bias about how we might view those who are physically present, compared to those physically distant?

The unintended consequence of road signs is less-safe roads. The unintended consequence of flexible working might mean a less favourable working environment for women.

We can potentially avoid it if we stay alert.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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