Debra Allcock Tyler: Flexible working could roll back gender equality by decades


I have always been interested in the science of unintended consequences. One of my favorite examples is road signs and crosswalks.

It turns out that there is some evidence that it makes the roads less safe. For example, a study on a busy road showed that the number of accidents was reduced by 60% after the removal of some traffic lights.

We introduced things like road signs, traffic lights, and crosswalks because we thought it would make our roads safer. Common sense, right?

But it seems the opposite is true. No sign means fewer accidents.

The unintended consequence of visible traffic signs is that they make roads less safe – counterintuitive.

Whenever I come across something that seems both logical and the right thing to do, I immediately pay attention to the unintended consequences. Which brings me to today’s conversations about flexible working.

The pandemic has undoubtedly forced changes in working practices in the office, which means that many office workers no longer have to operate in an “office-Monday to Friday nine to five” culture.

It has also resulted in a more equitable distribution of tasks at home. Men, like it or not (and, in all fairness, many say they liked it), were allowed to be more involved in housework, childcare and care. This is clearly a good thing for fair parenting.

Now we are seeing flexible ways of working, where home and work can be better aligned for people, being embraced by many organizations. And we embrace it because it seems the logical and right thing to do.

But, like traffic signs, I foresee possible accidents to come.

I vividly remember a study from the University of California in the 1980s. It was done around the time when women started struggling for a better work-life balance and wanted to include men.

The study asked men about their attitudes towards work-life balance. To my surprise, it turned out that the majority of men, when allowed to respond anonymously, thought their work-life balance was good, despite long office hours.

According to the survey, they didn’t want to spend more time at home doing housework, feeding the children, or struggling with bedtime.

Has men’s attitudes changed since? Well, given that most current studies still show that women still bear the burden of family responsibilities disproportionately, I’m not sure they have it. (Please don’t #NotAllMen me!)

I recently read an article on the BBC website referring to a recent survey of 2,300 office workers in the UK which showed that 69% of mothers wanted to work from home at least once a week after the pandemic, against only 56% of fathers.

So this passion for new flexibility, while very appealing on the surface, could have the unintended consequences of pushing equality back decades.

If mothers work from home more often than fathers and employers allow people to do whatever they want, what could this mean for gender balance in the physical workplace?

If we simply allow reckless and unmanaged flexibility, will we end up with a male dominated physical workspace, with all the advantages that this brings on careers and opportunities?

Will we see the pay, positions and power favoring the men because they’re in the room, going to meetings together, sharing ideas by the kettle, walking into the pub when they get home?

We, as a sector, should think long and hard about the unintended consequences of the new labor flexibility.

Don’t get me wrong: this is better than the old ways and we should, indeed, have to embrace it – but not without being very careful about how it can harm women and what we can do. to avoid this.

At the very least, we need to track which demographic in our charity has requested home / work flexibility, and who accepts it.

We need to ask ourselves what we can do to prevent workspaces from being dominated by men, with all the benefits that this confers, such as greater access to senior leaders.

Are our paternity rights fair? Are we encouraging male staff to work from home as much as female staff? Are we watching him?

What about our promotion criteria and process? Do we have ways in place to ensure that office workers don’t get a benefit one way or another?

Can we work on the unconscious biases about how we might view those who are physically present, versus those who are physically distant?

The unintended consequence of road signs is less safe roads. The unintended consequence of flexible working could mean a less favorable working environment for women.

We can potentially avoid it if we remain vigilant.

Debra Allcock Tyler is Executive Director of the Directory of Social Change

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