Working mothers paid the price of home schooling: how to best support flexible working for women

Mother helping children with homework

Lisa Jobson is a specialist in talent management and management consulting and has extensive experience in supporting businesses to determine focus and the strategic importance of diversity.

Today, the 8th of March, marks International Women’s Day and the day many parents across England have been waiting for since December 2020. English schools are beginning their return to in-person teaching, having first closed their doors nearly a year ago – an event that forced parents to suddenly bear the substantial responsibilities of home schooling.

Not only were parents forced to juggle childcare while working from home but, with schools shut, their responsibilities also extended to teaching duties. With so much happening under one roof, home schooling took a great toll on families across the country.

However, according to the Office for National Statistics, women felt this impact more than their male counterparts. Working mothers were significantly more likely to take the lead in caregiving and home learning, meaning women were disproportionately impacted by lockdown.

The flexible working agenda has alleviated some of this strain, but employers must adopt flexible working for women as a standard and tackle its associated biases to truly support working mothers.

Working mothers are paying the price

The pandemic has had many pressures, and its impact was felt by everyone; children, parents, employees, and employers.

However, it is important to consider that women were found to be especially burdened by their new, extra day-to-day responsibilities. The 2020 Women in the Workplace report by and McKinsey & Company, found that mothers were picking up many more home duties during the pandemic.

During lockdown, women were significantly more likely to take charge of home learning and childcare, which meant that women and working mothers have experienced heavier challenges during Covid-19 as a result.

Studies found that 67% of women, in comparison to 52% of men, took the lead of their children’s education, forcing many women to re-evaluate their approach to working.

In turn, the events of the pandemic certainly impacted the stress levels of working parents – with women taking the brunt of the struggle yet again. A study found that 22% of women, in comparison to 16% of men, were more likely to state that their work-life balance had deteriorated in the lockdown period.

The United Nations has warned that without dedicated action to tackle increasing domestic demands, there is a significant risk that the pandemic will erase important equality progress.

Flexibility is key

Businesses have had to rapidly adapt to support their female employees but, as we emerge from lockdown, companies must consider maintaining flexible and hybrid working polices to safeguard working mothers.

The flexible working model has enabled the continuity of education, work, and childcare during the pandemic. But beyond the health crisis, flexible working for women is widely considered the key to increasing gender-equal opportunities in the workplace.

Research by the UN shows that before Covid-19, women spent six more hours than men on unpaid childcare every week. During the pandemic, women have taken on even more of this load. On average, women spent an extra 5.2 hours per week for childcare in comparison to an extra 3.5 hours for men. Without flexible working, women would be unable to balance their work and home lives and dedicate these hours away from their virtual desk.

The PWC Women in Work Index has reported that, because of the issues mentioned, more women than men have had to leave the labour market during the pandemic. If working mothers leave the workforce and pause their careers, we risk a reversal of critical gender equality gains.

Employers cannot ignore the benefits of flexible working and successful practices for women: better control over schedule, effective workload management, increased productivity, and improved work-life balance. Without policies of this nature, the barrier to workforce participation will close and leaders will battle to attract or retain female talent.

In fact, Deloitte research has shown that 29% of women felt like a lack of flexible working policies may stunt their progression, with 48% stating that flexible working options would be beneficial to support their career long-term.

Motherhood and workplaces biases

In our pre-pandemic world, flexible and remote working were often accompanied by biases in the workplace. A survey in 2019 found that a third of women in the civil service felt that their superiors viewed their flexible working as negative, meaning that flexible working had negatively impacted their impacted their career.

The stigma of flexible working for women, frequently created when employers and colleagues are unable to visibly see your workplace contribution, has only been exacerbated since. Flexible working means that employees often work changeable hours, adjusting to their childcare needs each day. It is a common misconception that flexible working is unsociable or unreliable – a falsehood that can detrimentally affect a company and its culture.

During Covid-19, research has shown that working mothers worry that their performance at work is criticised if they are unable to respond instantly to work demands. Mothers were found to be more likely than fathers to worry that their performance at work is under scrutiny because of their time spent on childcare.

To most observers, it is clear that teleworking and flexible working is the key to supporting working mothers. But these issues and biases need to be urgently confronted to help women, boost morale, and create an equal opportunity workplace.

Companies must consider extended flexible working for women

So, the important question is: what are the next steps for workplace leaders?

Home schooling and childcare has significantly affected women in the workplace, so it is imperative that employers put policies and initiatives in place to adequately support flexible working for women as we return to normality.

Efforts must be made to adopt standard flexible working where possible. Leaders must follow in the footsteps of organisations like The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which recently launched its #FlexFrom1st campaign, calling for employers to support flexible working for all.

The campaign advocates for a change in UK law and the right to request flexible working from the beginning of employment. Along with more appeals, change like this will help ensure that flexible working remains accessible and is maintained post-pandemic.

Companies must also use this time to re-examine performance objectives and implement realistic deadlines for working parents. Less than a third of companies have updated their performance review structure during the health crisis. This has meant that many employees, often women, have found the pre-pandemic workload unsustainable in the current climate.

LinkedIn research has suggested that women are nearly 10% less confident than men in their ability to get or hold onto a job, in addition to 67% of women being less confident in their ability to progress their career currently. Ultimately, working mothers will be forced to leave the workforce if leaders do not re-evaluate workplace expectations.

In addition, we must fight the workplace biases that can come with flexible working for women. While we have seen a shift in the acceptance of flexible working by the UK Government, not enough is being done in the workplace to fight unconscious biases to avoid penalisation among hiring managers, colleagues, and leadership.

If companies welcome polices that create supportive cultures, they will reap rewards such as employees making more discretionary effort, advanced productivity, widening equality, and greater profitability. Our bespoke unconscious bias training workshops and diversity and inclusion training can help your organisation build an equal, supportive, and inclusive culture.

Companies must implement long-term change to support the normalisation of flexible working for women to help achieve workplace equality.

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