HEALTH AND WELLBEING
Has COVID cut the suits and ties that bind ?
The requirement to work from home has allowed millions of office workers to shed their suits and commutes , and to savour a freedom that may herald a new era of workplace equality .
P andemics don ’ t play fair . While feel-good bromides such as ‘ We ’ re all in this together ’ have cluttered the airwaves during the past 18 months , the gendered reality of COVID-19 and its impact on working life is far less democratic .
For Dr Emily Yarrow , Senior Lecturer in International Human Resource Management at Portsmouth Business School , any assessment of the pandemic ’ s impact on female workforce participation must begin with the acknowledgment that we entered it as an unequal society .
“ Women already came into the pandemic on the back foot ,” she says . “ We know there are gender pay gaps . There are significant inequalities around who does unpaid labour in the home , and who cares for children and sick or elderly family members . And there is still significant attitudinal bias in society around what construes men ’ s and women ’ s work .”
A year-and-a-half from the coronavirus ’ s emergence , the role technology has played in keeping people connected ( quite literally ) to their jobs has raised a new set of questions : while technology has been a saviour for some industries , has it also helped level the playing field for women ?
Dr Yarrow says there ’ s something “ quite wonderful ” about technology freeing many of us to do our work from anywhere equipped with a stable internet connection . But with it comes an erosion of the line separating work from home life , and it is here that technology can be both a blessing and a curse .
“ We ’ ve seen this real intensification of the work-life interface ,” she says . “ And it ’ s certainly still the case that it ’ s women who are doing the child care , doing the unseen work in the home , managing homeschooling and everything that comes with that . When we went into the pandemic , there were very strong existing ideas of gender roles , both in the home and in terms of work , including this insidious notion of the male breadwinner model .
“ So , on a very practical level , for many women it ’ s about disturbances to the working day as well .”
While technology can certainly be an agent for change in boosting workforce participation and increasing flexibility , it also privileges those who can work remotely , says Dr Yarrow . Women remain disproportionately represented in jobs such as the leisure sector or caregiving work , where it ’ s necessary to be physically present in a workplace : “ In that sense , when we ’ re talking about how technology has changed women ’ s work , we ’ re talking only about certain facets of the labour force .”
There ’ s an important intersection with other gender-based inequalities . Women tend to be engaged in more precarious forms of employment in sectors that are less stable . “ And potentially what we ’ re starting to see is a slower recovery from the pandemic in certain sectors where women are disproportionately represented as well .”
The office revolution The recent announcement by accounting and consulting firm EY that its 17,000 UK employees would be expected to work from home two days a week on an ongoing basis is a sign that office life as we know it has been well and truly disrupted .
This hybrid working model indicates an increased organisational responsiveness to change and to crisis management , says Dr Yarrow – and it may ultimately help redress the vertical gender segregation evidenced in many organisations in which men dominate the positions of power .
“ Where I do remain hopeful and optimistic is that the insights and experiences we ’ ve had during the pandemic will have an effect on people ’ s thinking … that the people in decisionmaking roles , from leaders to managers , have potentially more experience to draw upon to become more empathetic towards other people ’ s struggles and work-life tensions ,” she says .
“ What we need is a more humanistic understanding of what other people are going through , in terms of getting to work , finding space to do their work and being able to carry out their work effectively and ensuring that employees are adequately supported . That may potentially have a positive impact upon policies in the workplace . And I do think elements of that are linked to changes that we ’ ve seen around technology , and hopefully that will play out in terms of more flexibility .”
As is the case with any societal change , there will always be winners and losers . Some women may well find an expectation to work from home is a poisoned chalice . “ But I think what we all need to strive for is to try to narrow that gap in terms of inequality , between who benefits the most and who benefits the least .”
ISSUE 03 / 2021