It is often quipped that nothing can be certain but death and taxes. For women, there was always a third unspoken certainty: the eventual choice between a career and a family.
Since the Second World War paved way for women to work in factories en masse, the trajectory of their careers has flourished a long way. Each year a formidable number of women graduate from the UK’s top universities, secure prestigious graduate schemes and compete in equal numbers for the City’s most-coveted employers. They spend their twenties exploring their interests and building their careers before inevitably coming to face with the age-old binary: continue their careers or start a family?
This binary still exists despite the slew of extended maternity leave policies, job security and childcare benefits offered by generous employers. Rather, women who want to do both accept the implicit compromise of one: such is the nature of mutual exclusivity. For new mothers who return to the blue-collar workforce, their hourly-based income takes a hit due to demanding childcare duties. The hours and months spent off the clock gradually accumulate into a sizeable wage gap to their male co-workers.
For mothers returning to full-time white-collar jobs, they are expected to embody the Stakhavonite worker trope embodied by their male colleagues. Facetime culture in the office, the stigma of asking for “flexible” working and the insufficient billable hours all hinder them from promotions and rewarding career progression. They end up in purgatory: unable to fully attend to their young children and unable to access senior leadership positions they deserve due to “lifestyle choices”.
The takeaways of the pandemic offer a more hopeful future for these women. The black swan event jettisoned years of advancement towards virtual and remote working as a contingency to prevent economic implosion. Since the UK entered official lockdown in March, official guidance has discouraged working from the office where possible. In response, employers have been swift to roll out working from home equipment to their workers and invest in online infrastructure to shift the workplace online. Some have legitimised a work from home policy until the end of 2021, or indefinitely. Although implemented as a last resort, the normalised structural shift from real to virtual working will yield dividends for working women with families in the long run.
Far from being framed as a privilege one must earn and use only infrequently, the burden will be reversed on employers to prove why employees cannot choose to work from home at their discretion. While there is some merit to the arguments about the pitfalls of remote working, it is a likeable reality for many working mothers. Rather than having to downshift to part-time to juggle family needs or leave the workforce entirely, women can spend more time at home doing tasks that do not warrant office interaction. From attending calls to decision-making and strategising, the pandemic proves the bulk of office work can be done virtually to a comparable standard. It also proves employers can trust their workers despite their increased independence and unsupervised environment. Ultimately, the increasing sophistication of cloud and virtual technology promised in the next 10 years only adds to the possibility for an attractive third way.
The normalisation of flexible working also means men can have a stronger presence in the family and mutualise the burden of parenting. Not only will this challenge the “breadwinner” trope of men toiling outside all day to sustain the family, but will help balance their disproportionate work-life dynamics. Admittedly, the cultural change benefits women in white-collar jobs significantly more than their blue-collar counterparts. But the rise of virtual work offers new opportunities to retrain and upskill for the digital age to suit our evolving conception of work – meaning they too can be included within these gains.
Only, things will get worse before they get better. The damage to female-dominated industries and the mass exodus of female employees to cope with virtual schools will be felt in the short-term. In the long run, the cultural aftershock of the pandemic will position women to shatter glass ceilings and the antiquated binaries sheltered underneath.