Beware of unintended consequences

What will COVID-19 mean for women and work? Recession, job loss, childcare nightmares, greater remote working and greater flexibility generally? The impact is likely to be varied with potential unintended consequences.

Flexible Working - woman working at home on her computer

Occasionally, employers will deal with flexible working requests on an informal basis

There seem to be a lot of different ideas about what COVID-19 will mean for women. While men are much more likely to die from COVID-19, the evidence shows that women, particularly those in lower paid jobs, are more likely to lose or be at risk of losing their jobs, mainly due to the sectors they tend to work in.  They are also more likely to be on the frontline in health, care, supermarket and teaching jobs. And they are more likely to be the ones taking the lead on homeschooling/childcare while working from home.

However, there has been a lot of speculation about whether the pandemic will result in more positive long-lasting changes in flexible working which will be good for women. Clearly remote working is going to be used by more employers in the near future than it was before the pandemic, workplaces will change generally and employers will be under pressure to find ways to support remote working better in order to get the most out of their workforce. That could mean more remote jobs being advertised which will make it much easier for parents to work around the different pressures they face and redundancies are likely to be high in the sectors women tend to work in. Many more jobs than were worked remotely before the pandemic could clearly have been done from home. So many women have had to leave jobs or change careers in order to get greater flexibility.

The problem is if there is a gendered approach to remote working, with assumptions being made that women need it more. The evidence suggests that this is the reality now. Women are doing most of the childcare and homeschooling. Do we want to entrench that?

Remote working has to be for everyone, not just in law, but in practice. Flexible working legislation is currently open to all, but it is mainly women who use it. If there is a law giving people the right to work from home that needs to be not only open to all workers but promoted as such.  Jacinda Ardern’s promotion of a four-day week as well as other flexible options generally could, for instance, be one way forward. Employers should encourage people to consider different options with regard to flexible working and employees should be able to request changes if their circumstances alter.

Whenever I listen to discussions about flexible working, at the back of my head there is a nagging voice: Be careful of what you wish for.

Perhaps I am overly cautious and negative, but I’ve seen so many different shifts in the last years which have had unintended consequences – greater flexible working, certainly, but flexible working used in many cases to exploit workers; the promotion of agile working [an approach meant to encourage more men to work flexibly – and it has to a certain extent] which seems to have hardened attitudes against part-time workers – mainly women –  who are seen as not flexible enough, and so forth; more women running their own businesses to get flexibility, but many of these businesses failing, even before COVID-19…

Don’t get me wrong – I am all in favour of flexible and remote working. I just worry that we will return to women being more and more attached to the home, less visible, less able to organise [and I know there are many virtual initiatives on workers’ rights]… Of course, we can try to deal with all of these issues as they come up, as we have been doing with the ones listed above, and some may want to be more tied to the home. What is important is that we go forward with care and think about all the possible consequences.

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