Employment law for employers

Flexible working may disadvantage women

The Covid-19 pandemic revolutionised office culture and introduced home working to the mainstream. Indeed, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently consulted on the possibility of flexible working becoming a default right.



Flexible working initiatives have been largely welcomed by those who see more traditional modes of working as a barrier to workplace equality.

Although working from home is perhaps the most prominent form of flexible working, the term refers to any alternative working arrangement, from job-shares, flexible start and end times, compressed hours and even hybrid models. Employers can be creative in how they adopt flexible working patterns to suit their business needs.

It is hoped new working models will go some way towards eliminating the disadvantages faced by many, particularly women, those with caring responsibilities or those with disabilities. Employers have a crucial part to play in ensuring the introduction of flexible working doesn’t disadvantage those predicted to benefit most; the effects of the pandemic are predicted to have rolled back the progress made in gender equality in the workplace by up to 10 years.

A challenge to traditional gender roles?

Greater adoption of flexible working by employers has been widely promoted as a means of allowing parents to better balance childcare responsibilities and in particular to allow women, who tended to have the greater share of childcare responsibilities, to balance care with their career goals.

Recent reports on the impact of the pandemic echo a 2018 study on flexible working and gender equality. The 2018 study found that women were more likely to take on additional care responsibilities when working from home, whereas men had some tendency to work more hours when at home compared to when in the office.

The reality of working from home during the lockdown for many parents was at odds with the idea that flexible working options would challenge traditional household roles. Reports showed that women took on the majority of additional childcare responsibilities arising from the closure of schools and nurseries during the height of the pandemic, and women were found to have spent twice as much time as men on their children’s home schooling and development during the lockdown. The additional childcare responsibilities meant many women had to put their careers ‘on hold’.

In addition, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) recently warned in their May 2021 research report on the impact of flexible working during lockdown on gender equality in the workplace, that remote working could increase expectations of overtime, expectations which those with caring responsibilities would risk being unable to match. This casts serious doubt over the idea that the explosion in hybrid-working will benefit women and those with caring responsibilities.

The risks of unmatched take-up

The career risks associated with working remotely have received fresh commentary during the pandemic, particularly in the context of workplace equality. With home working now being so commonplace, the pandemic has caused a decline in the perceived stigma around non-traditional working patters. However, remote employees still risk becoming invisible, especially given the recent push to get workers back in the office.

Those not present at the office may be perceived as less committed to their jobs and miss out on opportunities and the chance to form strong working relationships with colleagues involved with their career development.

In June 2021, the Guardian reported that women were seeing the results of their work forgotten because they weren’t onsite, with many missing out on promotions as their work went unnoticed. In November and December, the BBC, the Guardian and the Telegraph warned that women with care responsibilities were most at risk of missing out on the benefits of on-site working, such as on-the-job learning and informal networking opportunities, and were therefore likely to see their careers suffer as a result.

What can employers do?

Given the greater scale on which we’re likely to see flexible working patterns going forward, it is essential that businesses ensure it is not to the detriment of equality in the workplace.

A failure to stop the slide into greater inequality could risk creating a two tier system where women lose out on the professional benefits of being in the office and take on additional responsibilities within the home, while their male counterparts harness the benefits of onsite working and advance their careers.

In their recent report, the BIT suggested that businesses should protect against excessive overtime, support social connection and encourage take-up of remote working at senior levels in order to avoid onsite working becoming a symbol of career commitment.

Employers should monitor take-up of flexible working options, and the career progressions of those working remotely as compared to their onsite colleagues, to ensure the potential benefits of remote working are harnessed.

Offering support to remote workers and promoting their visibility within the workplace may help ensure those working remotely do not suffer negative career consequences.




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Zoë Deckker

Trainee Solicitor


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