We have all seen the articles about women, especially mothers, being disproportionally affected by the pandemic. There are few positives from Covid but the transformative ways of working during this unprecedented time could present a silver lining, especially when it comes to an inclusive workforce. The use of technology and the huge increase in flexible working shows what is possible.
I remember when Anne Marie Slaughter, the first woman to serve as the Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department quit her job saying that juggling a high-level government position with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible. Women, she begrudgingly came to accept, could not ‘have it all’.
Women who want to have a career and a family need to have the ability to control their own schedule or else a lot of balls are going to get dropped. Since most women are not in a position to do that, they have to make difficult choices. Slaughter was criticised for betraying the feminist utopia by challenging the notion that if we women are just determined and ambitious enough, anything is possible.
When it comes to career and fatherhood, high achieving men don’t usually have to deal with difficult trade-offs in the same way. There is no point in debating how fair or unfair that is – although we should perhaps return to this issue another time – as it is often the reality. Indeed, during the pandemic, it has mostly been women who have had to juggle jobs – if they have managed to keep them – with domestic duties.
Today, there is a once in a generation opportunity to have more control and change the way we work for the better. Covid has accelerated the pace of change as most organisations have had to move to remote working almost overnight. Changes that might have taken years were achieved in just a few months with office meetings, external meetings, and conferences taking place online, changing the meaning of being ‘physically present’.
The culture of office face time and rigid hours needed to evolve, not just to accommodate people with care duties but to allow a better work life balance for all. The ability for many more people to work flexibly without it impacting their output and, in many ways, actually enhancing it, should not be lost.
When the JLC organised a day-long conference on women’s progression in the Jewish community, we examined whether it was an organisation’s policy or culture which determined a woman’s success. We looked at everything from the so called “hot tub culture” – where decisions are made in male only spaces, to the MeToo Movement, to flexible working. An organisation which offers flexible working hours may seem attractive to a working mother who wants to balance childcare with a career but if the belief that more face time equals more value persists, what your contract says doesn’t count for much. Good policy needs to be augmented by good culture.
When the pandemic eases, men and those without care-giving responsibilities will be able to bounce back to the old ways sooner. In order to stave off that discrepancy which will further widen the gender gap, digital working practices must become part of our new normal. There will not be a one- size-fits-all approach and it will be a case of trial and error. It is important that we share our successes and failures.
Integrating digital innovations with more traditional approaches to form a hybrid working arrangement will give many more working mothers, and others, increased flexibility over their own schedules. Let’s not just hit reset and lose this opportunity.