The impact of the pressure to go back to the office on gender equality

Are we going backwards on gender equality since Covid when it comes to sharing of household tasks?

Woman working at home while husband is doing the cleaning

 

Last week there was an interesting report on Bloomberg about the potential impact of the pressure to go back to the office. It said men’s increased involvement in household responsibilities since the pandemic is being undermined by companies’ return-to-office mandates, with the push for employees to be physically present in the office creating conflict between two-career couples. This is because it reduces the flexibility that allowed for a more equitable division of household tasks during the pandemic and after, said the article.

Studies over the course of the pandemic have shown men’s involvement in household tasks, including childcare, has increased with more men working from home. There have long been fears that the push to go back to the office more days will mean more men return, since the underlying attitude remains that men don’t need it as much as women. If women are able to retain hybrid or remote working more than men – or if more of them leave because they are forced back to the office – it is highly likely that will have an impact on equality at home. Less equality at home is likely to mean more problems when it comes to equality at work because the two are inextricably linked.

The alternative is that the person carrying the majority of the home responsibilities as well as a heavy workload will either need to outsource as many household tasks as possible – at a cost which most won’t be able to afford – or face the risk of potential exhaustion. That will have an impact on retention, career progression and the gender pay gap.

In the big rush to spend more time in the office – just over the weekend there has been a story about council staff ‘working from the beach’, the subtext of which is that remote workers are shirkers, a story about City pressure to work at least three days from the office and, going one better, a call for Whitehall staff to have to come in four days a week – employers mustn’t lose sight of the broader benefits of flexible working and the agenda of those, such as the TaxPayers Alliance, pushing back to the office. There has been a lot of focus on the potential negatives of remote working of late, but not so much on the potential negatives of going back to the office. And not just for a future where we need to retain more older workers and are looking at ways to get the sick back to work. For many years the number of women dropping out of their careers – to take lower paid jobs nearer home, to reinvent themselves, to set up their own more flexible businesses or to take a career break – has been virtually invisible.

This is not just about childcare. Elder care is becoming an increasing issue for many employees as is health. If employers are serious about both gender equality, including the gender pay gap and diversity and inclusion [remote working being important for a large number of people] we need to see that those people are not forgotten once more. Of course, there has to be a balanced consideration of the pros and cons in decisions about the workplace, but in those calculations it must be factored in that back to ‘normal’ is not the best option for many people for whom normal wasn’t working before the pandemic.



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