Don’t blame women for working flexibly

Don’t blame women for working flexibly
Opinion: Career Leaders

Media’s’ ME-EO’ mentality is at risk of using the feelings of the powerful few to kill this once in a generation opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better.

An angry man is glaring up at me. He is accompanied by an equally angry headline: ‘Remote working is killing London. Get Back to the office.’

I’m reading this on LinkedIn, rather than in the newspaper. The angry man is Dylan Jones, the editor of the Evening Standard. The fact that I’m reading it on a work from home day, the aforementioned newspaper no longer part of my once daily commuting habit, might be part of the reason he looks so perplexed.

The pandemic ushered in a seismic shift in how, when and where we worked. As individuals and organisations we formed new habits in everything from media consumption, to where we did or did not buy our lunch.

The revolution in remote work was perhaps the most lasting shift. A change which, according to ONS data, saw half a million women transition from part-time roles to full-time ones.

Hybrid working offered a new model of flexible working which afforded more space for caring responsibilities. A model which is so desperately needed in the media industry. Because if we are being brutally honest, flexible working in the media, most often equates to women working a full time job in four days, for 20% less salary.

Yet this inherent inequality is nowhere to be seen in an increasingly polarised debate on the future of work. One driven by a media narrative with a vested-interest in presenting the inequity of the past as a progressive blueprint for the future.

The danger of a ME-EO mentality

Jones, like many media commentators, bases his opinion on the future of work on the feelings of the powerful few. This inability to distinguish fact from feelings is at the nub of this increasingly conservative and divisive narrative led by the leaders of the past.

According to KPMG’s latest Global CEO Outlook survey of 1,300 CEOs (150 of whom were based in the UK) 63% of UK CEOs said they expect people who were office-based before the pandemic to have returned full-time.

87% of CEOs globally — 83% in the UK — told KPMG that it’s likely or very likely that employees who make an effort to come into the office will be rewarded with favourable assignments, raises or promotions.

Jonathan Holt, UK CEO of KPMG, explained on LinkedIn: “Just ordering everyone back to their desks is unlikely to sit well with workers used to hybrid, so the challenge is to find ways to ease their return and be clear why this is beneficial to them. For businesses like mine, carrots rather than sticks are the best tools for this job.”

Yet, in prescribing what is beneficial to employees, like Jones, Holt is blind to the bias at play. There are 12 female CEOs in the FTSE 250 and 52 female CEOs in the Fortune 500.

Is asking the past what the future will look like the best basis for success? Is this level of inequality what we should collectively be fighting to return to? Or is now the time to finally admit that how we work isn’t working for everyone.

Dressing up presenteeism as progressive policy

Personally, I love working from an office. I am no longer at a stage of my life when I am at the mercy of TFL to complete a sweaty-palmed nursery pick up. I am physically able. I can afford the exorbitant cost of travel to central London. Yet I would never be so arrogant to assume the privileged lens of my own experience is an adequate blueprint for other people’s working lives.

As a gereatric millennial and a mother in a male-dominated industry, I am also acutely aware of my responsibility to speak up to challenge the sexist obstacles and attitudes I faced earlier in my career. I am acutely ashamed that so many parts of the media industry still view maternity leave as a creative full stop. We have so much more to do.

Yet, in contrast when I speak to some media CEOs about this opportunity to level the playing field, they cannot disentangle their own personal discomfort with working from home from the bigger picture. This ‘ME-EO’ attitude delivers Goldman Sachs levels of bias and heavy-handed return to office policies, without the sweetener of a Sachs’ sized bonus.

Yet these public declarations of going ‘strong’ with inflexible working practices remain unscrutinised and unchallenged.

The media industry is complicit in perpetuating the myth that hybrid working is the problem. It could be a huge part of the solution to the industry’s biggest challenges when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Promoting heavily-branded one-size fits all approaches to the future of work simply does not cut it. Serious leaders wouldn’t point to a couple of Cannes Lions and declare their draconian presenteeism to be progressive or successful. Nor would they ignore the fact this rhetoric supports the notion of a two-tier workforce. One in which women will automatically lose out if they aren’t sat in the same chair at the same desk everyday.

WTF are we blaming women for WFH

Speaking at the Women in Work Summit last week entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow warned that working from home is ‘a disaster waiting to happen for feminism’. She shared her concern that women will become less visible in business because she sees more men than women choosing to work in the office.

Yet most women in the media don’t have the privilege to wait for that particular disaster to happen. I have spoken to many women  who are being squeezed out of the industry because they simply cannot afford the time, or the money, to increase their commuting days.

Research from Pregnant Then Screwed shows three-quarters of mothers who pay for childcare say that it does not make financial sense for them to work. So why are we so comfortable supporting a narrative that women are the architects of inequality

Leaders in our industry would still rather discuss the number of days their employees spend in the office, than address the truth that many of  their young employees can no longer afford to live in the capital.

Or that faced with the second most expensive childcare system in the world, working parents simply can no longer afford to be judged on presenteeism.

Remote working is not killing London. Nor is working from home killing creativity. A catastrophic lack of curiosity and compassion is killing this once in a generation opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better.

If leaders fail to have the humility to look beyond the narrow lens of their own privilege, we will fail before we even get started. So please, let’s stop pretending we have all the answers and start asking better questions.

Nicola Kemp has spent over two decades writing about diversity, equality and inclusion in the media. She is now editorial director of Creativebrief. She writes for The Media Leader each month.
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