Saturday 14 August 2021 11:00 am

Long read: the office, pay cuts, promotions and cities. Transcending the gender gap post-pandemic

Dr Eliza Filby is a generations expert

Cabinet ministers and CEOs are falling over themselves trying to bark us back into the office. Some are even threatening to cut our pay if we move too far away, but their sledgehammer approach is not winning converts, especially amongst women. Over the course of sixteen months of remote work, many of us have felt liberated from our heels, bras and even unwanted wandering hands. Remote working in a pandemic may have brought as many pressures as freedoms but there is no doubt that women in particular favour a flexible future.

Women feel remote working makes them better workers, according to data from the Office of National Statistics. Other surveys have pointed to women’s growing view of flexibility as a dealbreaker in employment conditions. Remote working has been accompanied with a desire for remote living (which will probably continue even if companies do decrease wages for those fully on-line workers). It’s been predicted that over 300,000 Londoners could migrate over the next year with the capital’s population likely to fall for the first time in 30 years – driven by those with families seeking more space and flexibility.

In those pre-pandemic days, city living was associated with cosmopolitanism, convenience and opportunity. But after a couple of weeks of lockdown, proximity to green space and a decent amount of square footage trumped all those pop-up restaurants, coffee shops and galleries that lay closed.

So the great migration and remote working experiment is underway, but are women, working mothers in particular, wise to embrace it so readily? 

Our generation’s escape from the Big Smoke is very different to our parents’ experience back in the 1980s, primarily because the economic makeup of households is now more complex. Forget male-only breadwinners, the majority of millennial couples are dual earners – the largest percentage ever and 71 per cent of mothers now work . Over the last 18 months this has meant (in our house at least) a tussle over who gets the most comfortable chair and desk, how childcare is divvied up and who makes the dinner. Even the most progressive marriages struggle with the debate over whose career should take precedence and often it comes down to who earns the most. For decades women have played out this fight in the workplace and now, however healthy their partnership is, many are having to fight for this right in the home.

In this new era, we can forget those outdated visions of Stepford Wives and “keeping up with the Joneses’”. The 21st century remote working mother won’t have time. Millennial men may have stepped up in terms of housework and child-care compared to their predecessors but the burden for most of these responsibilities has fallen, and will continue to fall disproportionately, on women. If you are used to the convenience and support structures of the city, rural living can come as a real shock. Paid and affordable help, something that working women have increasingly relied on over the last twenty years, is much harder to find the more remote you are. No wonder many families are choosing to live near grandparents. However we frame it, remote working puts women back in the home – albeit in front of a Zoom screen rather than the kitchen sink.

Cities have always been associated with fear and frustration for women – as the tragic murder of Sarah Everard and the ensuing debate about female safety revealed. But let’s not forget that cities have also been a place for female freedom, opportunity and expression, too. Back in the noughties, Sex and the City encapsulated the excitement of a new generation of professional women roaming city streets, free from the social constraints and etiquette of yesteryear. Where Carrie Bradshaw led, so Lena Dunham, Phoebe Waller Bridge, Michaela Cole and Aisling Bea have followed, documenting in unfiltered honesty women’s love affair with the urban playground and a two-fingered salute to all the frustrated suburban housewives that dominated the sitcoms of yesteryear.

But let’s not pretend cities, especially London, are easy places for families. The microaggressions you experience with a pram on public transport are enough to make you literally run for the hills. And that’s before you even start thinking about school places and property prices. There is evidence however that city-dwelling may be better for your marriage. Eight of the ten lowest local authorities for divorce rates are in London, followed by Oxford and Cambridge whereas Hastings, now being pitched as Britain’s best commuter seaside town, has the second highest proportion of divorced people in the country.

The real danger of course is that while flexible working undoubtedly makes childcare easier, it will make female promotion less likely, placing at risk all the hard work that women have put in over the last forty years. Stanford academic and remote-working expert, Nicholas Bloom, has summarised the challenge for companies: “My biggest fear is all the single young men come in five days a week, and college-educated women with a 6-year old and an 8-year old come in two days a week, and six to seven years down the road there’s a huge difference in promotion rates and you have a diversity crisis.”

To avoid this, companies will need policies in place to ensure a culture of presenteeism doesn’t hold, in part by incentivising those that are always in, to stay at home and those who mostly work from home, to come in. According to an ONS survey, women feel that working from home prevented them from “thinking outside the box” but also made them more efficient workers, while men considered that homeworking aided their creativity and self-care. Try satisfying all these urges rather than tampering with pay scales if you want to keep hold of your best talent. 

And yet the domestic shift needed is an even bigger challenge than the corporate one. If the 20th century saw the rise of the professional female, so the 21st century must give birth to the domesticated male, especially if this new hybrid working is going to work equally for dual income couples. Good intentions are not enough, we need policies and financial incentives if we are to normalise the sight of a man carrying a baby in a sling as much as we have normalised a woman on a commuter train. 

Evidence from the US suggests we are a long way off; millennial men are actually more conservative than their predecessors. Sharing her research on dual-income couples in the Harvard Business Review, Avivah Wittenberg Cox has concluded that while many high profile men are “happy to have successful, high-earning wives”…and “applaud and support them”, they do so “until it starts to interfere with their own careers.” She found that wives were under the misconception that the “well-educated couples would be mutually supportive and take turns, helping each other become all they can be” and found themselves shocked at the reality. Wittenberg Cox’s advice to professional females is rather blunt: “if you can’t find a spouse who supports your career, stay single.”

Women should remember that although those office heels may have pinched our feet, at least we were liberated from the apron strings. Women have come too far and the city has too much to offer for us (even working mums) to abandon it completely. But the fact is that if hybrid working is the future then this can only be fully realised if hybrid households become the norm as well. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.