Despite the growth of flexible working, which campaigners believed would lead to greater gender equality at home and at work, gender roles remain stubbornly fixed. Women look for flexible options that they can combine with family responsibilities. They put their foot on the career brakes, they earn less and contribute less to the economy. How men and women live their family lives has changed. But work has not.
THE KEY ISSUES
Since the 1970s, the number of women in paid work has rocketed. Women make up almost half the workforce today, up from around 30%. That leap hides something. Almost all the growth has been among working mothers. The economic activity rate of women without children has remained much the same. While mothers are more likely to be in paid work than women, and indeed men, without dependent children (and the same goes for fathers).
The revolution began with employers facing staff shortages offering part-time work to attract and retain working mothers. At the same time, the early flexible working pioneers had a more ambitious vision – if work could be reconfigured to make more room for the rest of life, the result would be greater equality, at home and at work, and improved balance and wellbeing for all.
The gender revolution opened the door to new possibilities, for women and for men. But.
Work has become greedy for our time. The digital revolution delivered the ability to work from anywhere, but has dissolved boundaries between work and the rest of life. Work intensification, the result of globalisation and the disappearance of many “ordinary” roles, is evident in long working hours for those in employment, and an increasingly large proportion in the less secure gig economy. Year on year stress related absence increases, and the leading cause is work overload. Workplace burnout has been formally recognised since 2019 by the World Health Organisation.
The gender revolution has brought many, many more women into the workplace, but has not led to any systemic change in how work is organised. It has simply required women to behave like men; mothers to behave as though they have a wife at home.
Flexible working should make it possible to maintain a career alongside motherhood.
But it is highly gendered in its operation and its outcomes.
Women are more likely to choose, or feel they have to choose, flexible options that reduce their working hours – such as part-time or jobshare. They are three times more likely to work part time than men. And they are more likely to seek the certainty of contractual flexibility.
Men are more likely to work flexibly informally, and to flex their full-time hours.
Part-time hours come at a cost. Opportunities for well-paid part-time jobs are scarce: almost half of mothers take a lower skilled job when they return to work after having children, in order to get the hours they need.
This can bring long-term negatives for lifetime earnings, pensions and poverty in old age. Across their lifetime, men earn – on average – 80% more than women. This reflects the impact of career breaks, part-time jobs and lower-paid work.
We know it makes sense to make the most of everyone’s talents. But work continues to be based on the model of the ideal full-time worker with someone else full-time at home.
Deep-seated beliefs about who cares and who works lead to unexpected outcomes: even when a woman is the higher earner in a couple, she will tend to take on more care responsibilities, and is more likely to reduce her hours.
Men express regret about the demands they face at work, but generally knuckle down and conform to expectations.
Managers make assumptions they believe are supportive, but actually expose women to less challenge and less career opportunity.
Part-time work comes with a pay penalty that is more than pro-rata’d to hours worked; and promotions are slower too.
Outside the workplace, the UK’s childcare and social care infrastructure is neither rationally organised nor affordable. Providers assume that the mother or female carer is the first point of family contact.
These add up to huge barriers to women’s equal employment.
For 40 years, we’ve been trying to bend women into a traditional male shape at work, and blocking the way for men to begin to do things differently at home.
For gender equality at work, we need gender equality at home.
Instead of trying to fix the women:
Fix work first
We need to be honest about resourcing and workloads. To identify and properly resource jobs that are simply too much for a human-sized full-time week, or that don’t scale to reduced hours. To interrogate assumptions about what it takes to progress, and rethink paths to promotion. And to design in flexibility from the start, recruit with all workable options openly available.
Look at leaders
Role modelling works, as long as it is real modelling. Male leaders who lead from the front, go to school events, leave loudly on time for family reasons, challenge stereotypes and inspire younger, less senior men to follow their example.
Get serious about men
Make it not just safe, but expected and normal that men will be active fathers or carers. Communicate and promote flexible working and parental leave to men. Pay paternity and parental leave.
Understand what your metrics are telling you
Track staff turnover, career progression and pay by gender and by working patterns. Hold the senior team accountable for shifting the gender dial at work.
The cost to the UK economy
The failing gender revolution comes at a huge cost to the UK economy. So many women lose their place on the career ladder. So many women are missing from leadership teams as a consequence. Yet gender diversity literally pays dividends. The UK economy and shareholders missed out on an additional £47 billion in pre-tax profit in 2020. This was calculated as the money that could have been gained if FTSE 350 companies with no women on their executive committees had performed with the same net profit margin as companies with more than 33% female membership.