Opinion: Remote working should not become the ‘Mother’ option, leaving women behind

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Mary Rose Burke of Dublin Chamber outlines the stumbling blocks faced by working women and the need for more flexible working options for all.

SOME MIGHT HAVE viewed the pandemic as an accelerator toward a more progressive world of work, however for many the ‘ We are all in this together’ mantra has grown stale.

The past year of Covid-19 lockdowns, work from home, and homeschooling has exacerbated the barriers that were already there in relation to participation and progression for women in the workplace.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated issue or just an Irish problem, but has been reported across the world and even highlighted by the UN and flagged by global consultancy McKinsey.

Data from 2019 shows how in recent years Ireland’s female labour participation rates have advanced to mid-table by EU standards, and there has been a noticeable and commendable increase in the female presence at board level.

However recent trends threaten to counter this progress and if we do not address the factors that contribute to women retreating from the world of work now, we will not have the pipeline of female talent across all levels that is needed to really change the gender balance in business long-term.

Building a better system

Last August, Dublin Chamber held member focus groups on the impact of Covid-19 on female labour participation. Attendees were from across the spectrum of businesses, both in relation to size and sector, and included entrepreneurs as well as directors and partners.

Overwhelmingly, feedback from the groups reflected the international experience of working from home whilst also shouldering greater shares of household duties.

Many were optimistic about the positives that could be achieved through progressive attitudes around flexible working but there was also notable concern that women would be sidelined to the ‘work from home role’ as men progressed up the ladder in the office.

Some participants were already seeing female colleagues looking at taking a step back due to the pressures of a senior role and home duties.

Without the sharing of caring and parental duties, progression and sticking power for women in senior positions will remain difficult. We need to strengthen the structures to enable fathers and partners to take on caring duties from the beginning. CSO figures on maternity and paternity leave show that just under half of fathers do not avail of the two weeks of leave to which they are entitled.

It is likely that this can be brought back to two points, that the culture around fathers taking leave has not yet progressed enough within firms or societally, and, that there are financial considerations that prevent it, as few two-parent households would choose to have both earners on the standard weekly paternity and/or maternity benefit of €245.

The government is looking at extending Parent’s Leave from two weeks per parent in the first year of a child’s life to five weeks over the first two years of a child’s life. We will see legislation on this in the year ahead and it is essential that efforts are made to promote it to all that are entitled to it.

The EU has recognised that parental duties need to be promoted to all partners through its Work-Life Balance Directive, it would be wise for the Irish Government to take note when it comes to parental and paternity leave policy and its promotion.

The childcare barrier

Childcare costs present another issue. It is simply not accessible and too expensive, with average figures regularly quoted for Dublin at over €1,000 per child per month. The CSO’s figures on paternity and maternity leave also show that the return to work rate declines with the number of children a mother has.

It is simple maths that it becomes too expensive to remain in the workplace if you have more than one child in childcare. It has also become clear that remote working is not the answer to childcare, as anyone that has been home-schooling can attest.

The government needs to make bold progression in this space, just as it has shown it is capable of during the current crisis.

The progression around remote working over the past year has been extraordinary. Dublin Chamber members have widely reported that they will be enabling a level of remote working longer term, with most looking to a hybrid system of 60-80% of an employee’s time being spent in the office.

However, it is essential that we think now about any unintended consequences that may arise. Remote working should not become the ‘Mother’ option whereby male colleagues retain visibility while women of child rearing age become less visible.

Flexible working policies being promoted across the board, and a considered set of steps around how firms roll out such policies is the answer. The government needs to similarly progress with caution.

Last week, we marked International Women’s Day, in which we celebrated our successes whilst also looking ahead to the work that needs to be done to maintain and progress.

This year, with everything going on, we need to take a pause and really assess what steps we are taking in relation to childcare, caring duties, and flexible working to ensure greater gender balance and a strong representation of women at senior levels.

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Mary Rose Burke is CEO of Dublin Chamber.

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