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Sarah* worked behind the beauty counters for makeup company Estee Lauder Group since she left college in 1999. Six years later, she landed a job in the corporate office, packed her bags and moved to London. “The team that I worked with were like my little family,” she says. “It was a really great brand to work for in a really beautiful building.”
She climbed the ranks of the company, and was promoted into a senior position. Then, in 2018, Sarah had her first child and took some time off. When she returned, the first thing she was asked was whether she was going to have any more children. “It was all a little bit odd,” she says. “After being off work for a year and not being comfortable coming back full-time, I asked to work from home.”
She claims her request was point-blank denied. “I thought, well, I’m just going to have to quit then,” she says. Human resources said she could appeal the decision, sending her through two appeal processes in which she had to write down everything she did in her job and everything she believed she could do from home. Her remote working request was turned down again and she was told that it didn’t “meet the business’ needs”.
In 2019, with childcare and commuting costs making it impossible to continue working in the office, Sarah felt she had no choice but to leave her job. Stories like hers have been echoed by pregnant women and new mothers up and down the country for decades.
Then along came the pandemic. Since the great global remote working experiment got underway in March 2020, employers have patted themselves on the back for implementing forward-thinking strategic decisions that women had been asking them to do for years. It seemingly wasn’t until men also needed to work from home that employers decided that it was okay.
A spokesperson for Estée Lauder did not comment on Sarah’s case. “We have always allowed flexible working arrangements in individual cases, in line with pre-existing regulations. But like many companies, we have learned a huge amount over the past year about the broader benefits of flexible working for colleagues and the company,” the spokesperson says. “While we are still formulating our policies in anticipation of the pandemic ending, what’s clear is that flexible working will be a significant feature of our working culture.”
Sarah says that her previous colleagues all work from home and have been doing so for almost a year. “I appealed so much for what everyone has got now. If I’d had my baby one year later, then I would have got everything that I’d asked for,” she says. “It’s a kick in the teeth to think that after giving so many years to a company. They weren’t prepared to offer me anything that I needed at the time.”
In 2015 survey conducted by job site Working Mums, more than a fifth of working mothers said that they were forced to leave their job because a flexible working request was turned down. In 2019, 32 per cent of working parents reported that they felt discriminated against because of their flexible working arrangements.
The pandemic has forced this to change. The Office for National Statistics says that almost half of all employees in the UK were working from home during the first lockdown.
In 2003, the UK government introduced the legal right for parents and carers to request flexible working, which requires employers to consider a request in a “reasonable manner”. In 2014, this right was extended to all UK employees. But this doesn’t mean that requests are accepted. A survey from the Trades Union Congress conducted in 2019 found that 30 per cent of flexible working arrangements were turned down. “It’s a legal right to request flexible working, it is unfortunately not a legal right to have your request approved,” says Rosalind Bragg, director of the maternity rights organisation Maternity Action. “We hear all the time about employers not being prepared to make the adjustments which are essential for women to be able to balance their work and caring responsibilities.”
Before Newcastle-based Mary accepted her job as a copywriter in 2018, she had asked her new employer whether she could work part-time to care for her 18-month-old daughter. “They thought about it for a day, but it was a no,” she says.
It wasn’t until the pandemic caused her office to shut in March 2020 that the company became more flexible to other ideas of working. “I reduced my hours, just by half a day a week so I could pick my daughter up from school, and they were fine with it,” Mary says. The pandemic has forced her employer to look at things differently and accept that more flexible arrangements need not impact on productivity or quality of work.
But working from home isn’t necessarily the strategy that will create an equal playing field for women. Studies have shown that for some people working from home can lead to more conflict between their home life and working life, with women taking on more caring responsibilities than men.
Women may be given the same flexible working arrangements as men, but they are bearing the brunt of care during the pandemic. A September 2020 report by management consultancy firm McKinsey and the women’s campaign group LeanIn.org found that two million women – or one in four – of the US workforce were considering taking a leave of absence or quitting altogether due to the pandemic.
Once the pandemic is over, businesses are likely to implement more permanent flexible working policies. A survey from the Institute of Directors conducted in October 2020 found that 74 per cent of the 958 company directors surveyed plan on maintaining the increase in home working and that more than half of them plan on reducing their long-term use of physical workplaces.
Some argue that employers need to go further than just offering remote work. “When women have children they are trained to continue having a career, and flexible working is a sticking plaster,” says Joeli Brearley, the founder of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed. She adds that 40 per cent of women in the UK are working part-time, a much higher percentage than the rest of Europe. “When mothers come back from maternity leave, they look for part-time work and that, of course, means that they stagnate in their careers.”
That, Brearley says, puts women on the so-called “mummy track” of low-paid work. Instead, what she says would really equalise the workplace for men and women is a four day working week. “What would really solve the problem is, rather than flexible working, if we got rid of this culture of presenteeism,” she says. “Mothers just can’t compete in that kind of environment.“
*Names have been changed
Alex Lee is a business writer at WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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