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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Take it from a mother, working from home is a disaster for women

While some may have winced at the Prime Minister’s rambling speech to the CBI, I couldn’t help but sympathise. I’m intensely familiar with what it’s like to get distracted by Peppa Pig while at work.

Indeed, various items of porcine tat are littering my living room as I write – physical embodiments of the guilt I simultaneously feel about both not tidying up and not fully concentrating on the task at hand. It’s an almost too literal metaphor for how being a working mother means having two jobs, and why the idea that the shift towards more flexible patterns of working precipitated by the pandemic may not be the victory for women that some claim it to be.

A report by the Resolution Foundation has found that greater levels of remote working have boosted female participation in the workforce by 0.4 percentage points since Covid struck, and by 5.4 percentage points for women with children under three.

On paper this is great news. But while flexible and home-working can help to close the gender pay gap by enabling more women to balance work and childcare, portraying it as a slam-dunk triumph for feminism misses the point.

For a start, pay disparity is a crude measure of inequality. Working odd hours at home is great for women with white-collar jobs, but it’s not much help for waitresses, shop assistants, teachers and nurses. These jobs have to be done in specific places at specific times, and they also happen to be predominantly done by women.

Even for those women who can benefit from flexible working, taking up this option may yet prove to be a poisoned chalice, harming their careers in the long-term.

Catherine Mann, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, has warned of the potential for two-track workplaces with men predominantly back in the office and women stuck at home missing out on the spontaneous conversations and after-work drinks that often lead to promotion.

There’s also a risk that “flexibility” turns into an expectation that an employee is available 24 hours a day. It’s simply impossible to look after a pre-schooler and do your best work at the same time – you can plonk them in front of a cartoon, but you can’t switch off the instinct to put them first.

In fact, the biggest barrier mothers face to career progression is not the hours or the location of their job, it’s who looks after their children while they do it. A full-time place at a nursery for a child under three can cost more than a private primary school. This is largely down to the Government’s unwise 30 hours a week free childcare policy. It’s a terrible use of taxpayers’ money – a hand-out to wealthy families who could afford to pay – that has caused thousands of nurseries in deprived areas to close because the subsidy doesn’t cover their costs.

Of course, women will seek out flexible working opportunities if the alternative is forking out for a private nursery they simply can’t afford. But in the long run, sticking a wailing toddler in front of Peppa Pig while desperately bashing out a few emails is no alternative to affordable, reliable childcare. When women are forced to juggle too much, they, their companies and their children all miss out. Home working is not a solution to the problems faced by working mothers. It simply disguises them.

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