New balance: will work be more parent-friendly than ever after the pandemic? | Work & careers
Last month, a video by Maggie Mundwiller, a mother in St Louis, Missouri, went viral on TikTok. It showed her one-year-old son accompanying her to a second face-to-face job interview. (She had asked for an alternative date because she had no childcare. The employer said: “Bring him with you.”) The video featured on Good Morning America, has had more than 9m views and has inspired endless admiring comments, including: “It makes me sooo happy to know there are companies like this”; “Glad it’s a toddler-friendly business!” and: “Take note, corporate America.”
The story is cute, as is the kid, who wore a bow tie and took along his own CV (“Skills: destroying a clean space in three seconds”). And, yes, the pandemic has given many of us permission to adopt work habits that previously weren’t encouraged. But will this kind of thing happen again in post-Covid life? What have we learned about incorporating family life into working life? And is anybody going to implement those lessons?
Behind last year’s conflicting headlines about “women returning to the 1950s” and “kids spending more time with dads than ever in history”, the picture is extremely unclear. Working parents seem to be vacillating between extreme optimism (“I can take my child to a job interview!”) and dire pessimism (“We will have to work even longer office hours to catch up!”). According to a study by the charity Working Families, published in the UK last month, 50% of parents “are concerned that a return to less flexible working, as restrictions are lifted, will have a negative effect on their family life”, while 32% have no such worries.
The start of the summer holidays are already a big challenge. In England, 640,000 children (of a school population of 8.9 million) are currently isolating at home. “With school and childcare bubbles bursting, parents have suddenly had to stop working and start home schooling again,” says Joeli Brearley, founder of the campaigning organisation Pregnant Then Screwed. “Due to late notice about whether restrictions would be relaxed, there are fewer holiday clubs for kids. And the day employees can be told to return to the office seems to coincide almost perfectly with the start of the summer holidays, adding enormous pressure and creating impossible challenges for many.”
The impact of the pandemic on working parents is complicated and unpredictable, Brearley says. “There appears to be huge polarisation in the way employers have reacted to Covid-19. On one side, we have been inundated with requests from employers to support them in making their workplace the best it can be for working parents. Covid-19 has forced many companies to recognise that their employees are people with real lives and other responsibilities apart from their job. They now understand that if they don’t enable their employees to effectively manage both their professional and their personal responsibilities, their workforce will have poor mental health and they will be less productive. However, on the flip side, our advice lines have never been busier and we have seen a huge uptick in discrimination towards pregnant women and mothers due to their caring responsibilities. And we have also seen a deterioration in employers granting flexible working requests, other than home working.”
Typical of the hundreds of women who have contacted Pregnant Then Screwed is Sarah, an admin worker with a two-year-old daughter. After six years working with a company and moving from part-time to a more senior full-time role, the end of her maternity leave coincided with the start of the first lockdown in March 2020. “Initially I was furloughed. Then in September I was called in and told: ‘Because of coronavirus we’re going to have to make you redundant.’ I just knew that it was because I’d had a baby and they’d managed without me and wanted to save money. Covid definitely made it easier because they could use it as an excuse. It was a bitter pill to swallow as, for a long time, I was made to feel valuable and appreciated. With Covid, it switched overnight.”
It’s a similar story for Becca, mother to a one-year-old, who has so far retained her four-day-a-week managerial job with a charity – but feels “on the sidelines, with no progress, no role and nothing to do”. She says: “I think Covid has been used as an excuse to not put the time and thought into my return to work. It was all: ‘You’ve come back in the middle of a pandemic … It makes things really difficult.’ The person who did my maternity cover has stayed on in my job. And I have been denied a promotion which I had been working for before I got pregnant. If Covid hadn’t hit, I think it would have been sorted out. But it has been an excuse to do nothing. I’m sure they were hoping I would just quit.”
Both Sarah and Becca wish they had taken more written notes of things that were said to them at certain times (“Are you planning to have more children?” “What have you gone and got pregnant for?”), which could have helped to build a case, Covid or not. And they wish they had sought advice and support sooner. But they both agree they have been unlucky with their employers and that their experience is not mirrored by families around them. This is where the unpredictability comes in.
Michelle Tucker runs the Wellbeing Supervisor, a Surrey-based company that specialises in absentee management and the mental health of working parents. She has been hosting a series of pandemic workshops for parents. Most of them rave about this time: “Two to three hours a day less travel. Money saved on travel. Household chores completed during breaks. More one-to-one time with children.” Parents have felt a lot less stressed, she says. “Their anxiety is reduced because they are on time for meetings where they used to be rushing and feeling they could never quite please everyone. People report getting more work tasks completed at home in less time – so a win-win for parents and organisations.” The one major stressor, however, was home schooling, with parents with young children feeling “trapped and helpless”.
There does seem to be an important divide between lockdown and what is happening now. In her book The Authority Gap, Mary Ann Sieghart examines the “systematic undermining” of women, which, she says, worsened during the first lockdown. “Suddenly, many women were expected to produce three meals a day, as well as bear most of the burden of home schooling. While male partners were often working from home almost undisturbed, women were doing the vast majority of the unpaid work. A Guardian poll found 70% of mothers did all or most of the home schooling, 73% did all or most of the laundry and more than 60% did all or most of the life admin, food shopping, cleaning, tidying up, childcare and cooking. What did the men do? Took the bins out.”
That picture may since have changed. A survey of more than 2,000 respondents by the Fatherhood Institute in May 2021 found that four out of five fathers were spending more time with their children than before the pandemic. The report states that “68% spent more time on home schooling or helping with homework; 59% spent more time on cleaning, laundry and cooking”. More than two-thirds reported “a better father-child relationship following lockdown”, though we must bear in mind that this is men and women reporting on themselves, and we all overestimate how much we do. Nonetheless, how do we preserve the gains and make working parenthood easier for everyone?
“From my conversations,” says Sieghart, “it seems that most employers will settle for a hybrid model, in which employees who can work from home will be allowed to do so several days a week. What’s crucial for women, though, is that men take up this opportunity, too. If it’s men who are mainly in the office and women who are mainly working from home, guess what? The men will be promoted and the women, less so.”
Gill Whitty-Collins, a former senior vice-president at consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble and the author of Why Men Win At Work, reels off an alarming array of recent statistics. Women’s job losses during the pandemic have already been 1.8 times greater than men’s, according to a recent McKinsey report. One in four women are considering downsizing or giving up on their career altogether, according to LeanIn and McKinsey. In the US, women are 24% more likely to lose their job, says the nonprofit Catalyst, while men have been promoted three times more than women this year and twice as many men as women have received pay rises. Whitty-Collins adds: “It is clear that the pipeline of talented women has taken a big hit from the pandemic and we will see the consequences of this for years to come. Only 7% of CEOs were women before Covid. We can expect that percentage to drop further.” This does not feel like a world where you can breeze into a job interview with a baby in a bow tie.
Plus, there’s no point in ignoring the obvious: many companies have lost money as a result of recent events. They may need extra reassurance about how experimental they can afford to be. And this new flexibility may simply not be in their DNA. Goldman Sachs’s CEO, David Solomon, said this year that remote work was “an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”. (You have to admire his candour.) But elsewhere the move to remote has already happened: a recent survey of charity leaders by the insurer Ecclesiastical found that almost one-third would not return to their offices. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People put its office up for sale in January and is consulting with staff over permanent remote working. Nationwide and Barclays have both announced their intention to move to a hybrid model.
“My sense from a social-sector point of view is that there isn’t going to be a return to any ‘normal’,” says Sue Tibballs, the chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, which supports thousands of charity campaigners across the UK. “Covid has blurred the boundaries of home and work – something women were already more used to. And it has accelerated the demand for flexibility, which, again, was often something women asked for. But without an underlying change in working hours or the balance of parental responsibility, I’m not sure what this amounts to.” She summarises the uncertainty: “It feels like there’s a lot of pressure for a renegotiation of working patterns and workplaces – and of our identity as workers and parents. But I’m not sure I’m hearing much about where all this is pointing to.”
It is pointing to a big question mark. And to a chronic unwillingness to say what “hybrid working” means. Does it mean you can work from home when you want? Or only when your boss says you can? Can they force you to be somewhere you don’t want to be? There is little agreement on what “best practice” might look like. But open consultation, dialogue and experimentation are clearly key. This is unlikely to be a situation where you set a new system in place and it works for everyone immediately. For some, it will be an opportunity to re-evaluate everything.
Sophie Walker, the founding leader of the Women’s Equality party and a co-founder of the intersectional feminist movement Activate, claims there’s an opportunity for radical change here. “There’s a need for a movement to rebel against the standard, white-male, capitalist framing of the only work that matters being the kind you do in an office – and break from only to buy sandwiches and sushi from corporate chains.”
Walker adds that the pandemic has only served to exaggerate “them and us” divisions. “There are lots of people who can afford it who will opt out and go for portfolio careers, having moved to the countryside and having enjoyed home working. ‘Top talent’ will have to be wooed. Meanwhile, the lives of those in precarious work – on part-time or with zero-hours contracts – will continue in just the same kind of awful fragility.”
Whitty-Collins puts it this way: “The pandemic has taught people, of all genders, how they want to work and live. I don’t think they are going to want to go back to the old way of being in the office all day every day. Employees with remote- and hybrid-work options are more innovative, more engaged, more committed and less likely to leave. Offering flexible work in job ads has been shown to increase applications by 30%. Smart employers know this. They will be the ones who keep and attract employees, while the ‘dinosaur’ companies who value and insist on presenteeism will lose out as people vote with their feet and find themselves another job where what matters is the work, not who is visible in the office.”
The fortunes of working parents will be largely dependent on the industry they work in and the position they occupy in the hierarchy. So if you feel as if you have some agency in your professional life, you will probably be OK. Otherwise … good luck. And maybe don’t start writing a cute CV for your baby just yet.
Some names have been changed