Over the last 12 months so much has changed in our lives in ways we could never have predicted. Yet, we have also adjusted, relatively, well to “the new normal”. With International Women’s Day upon us, where one of its’ missions this year is to “forge inclusive work cultures where women’s careers thrive”, it is timely to consider one of the biggest changes over the past year – working from home (WFH) – and its impact on women in the workforce. It is important to note, that while International Women’s Day highlights the significance of achieving gender equality in the workplace, it is a core goal that SIRO is committed to achieving all year long. As part of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 5 focuses on achieving gender equality and empower all women and girls, a goal which SIRO believes has become more relevant throughout the pandemic.
During Level 5 lockdowns, over 40% of the Irish workforce worked from home. WFH quickly shifted from something done by a small segment of the population to a mainstream activity overnight. But for working women, the jury is still out on their recent experiences of WFH. For working mothers, anecdotal evidence paints a picture of exhausted mothers, at home and double jobbing between the paying office job and childminding and home schooling. Much of this narrative may be true but does it tell the full story of WFH for women?
Not all women WFH are mothers or if they are, not all have childminding and home-schooling responsibilities. Equally, does it adequately take account of fathers and the roles they have also played in parenting during lockdown? Yet, according to OECD statistics, women in Ireland average almost 5 hours of unpaid work per day. While men in Ireland average just over 2 hours of unpaid work per day. The gap remains too wide. For true equality, we need a fairer sharing of responsibilities in the home. While the division of labour along traditional lines remains a factor, there are many reasons for this imbalance including more women opting to work as a full-time homemaker or women choosing to work part-time in a professional/paid role.
The success or failure of the recent mass exodus toward WFH cannot be fully judged against a backdrop of extraordinary circumstances – schools and childcare facilities closed, shops, restaurants and other entertainment and leisure facilities shut, restricted travel, social distancing and no meeting with family, friends, and colleagues. Yet, for many the experience of WFH has been positive. Several employee surveys have shown a majority of employees either wish to remain working from home in a full or part time capacity, post-pandemic.
As Chief Financial Officer at SIRO, a company rolling out high speed broadband across Ireland, I have more than a little vested interest in ensuring that WFH can work successfully, including for our employees. At SIRO we have long championed and promoted WFH amongst our non-field-based employees. This has allowed us to adapt more easily than others. We appreciate the huge benefits which can be derived from WFH and how life changing it can be. But as a woman too in this role, International Women’s Day, creates another moment to reflect on how we can continue to improve the lives of working women. With WFH, I see an opportunity for working women.
Opportunities of Working From Home
One of the greatest opportunities of WFH lies in its capacity to bring more women into the workforce. CSO data for the last quarter of 2020 tells us that while there was 69% male participation in the workforce, female participation lagged 13% behind at only 56%. And of these 56%, almost a third (30%) work part-time. Many factors such as access to and cost of childcare; commuting long distances to work; and even the cost of going out to work every day may make it unviable for women. WFH from home creates the capacity for women to reduce these barriers. The gender pay gap (GPG) is also linked, at least partially, to the issues outlined above. Eurostat data shows Ireland’s GPG stands at 14.4%. Campaigners seeking to close this gap, point out the gap effectively means women work for free from 9th November to year end. WFH means women can work more flexibly, empowering women, who wish to, to shift from working part time hours to longer or full-time working, increasing their earnings and further reducing pay gaps.
Another reason for the GPG is that, traditionally, men have tended to be in higher managerial roles, with higher salaries. Research has shown that despite equal qualifications, women are often not as confident as men in actively seeking promotions or putting their names forward for senior roles. Here too WFH might also be leading to shifting attitudes amongst women. Some women see WFH as a potential leveller in career advancement, helping to bridge the gap between the higher number of men in senior roles than women. Remote working may dilute many of the traditional male-dominated office networks from which some women have felt excluded.
The Introduction of a Hybrid Work Model
However, when lockdown restrictions ease, many organisations expect to transition to a ‘hybrid’ model of both WFH and team workplace-based activities. It will be critical that organisations ensure that this transition does not result in an imbalance, where women choosing to WFH, find themselves missing out on the networking opportunities at the office. This male networking culture is changing fast in Ireland. Indeed, in my industry, telecommunications, we have two of the leading telcos headed up women in Vodafone’s Anne O’Leary and Eir’s Carolan Lennon. Equally in public sector bodies such as ESB there is increasing diversity at senior levels. Within my own company, SIRO, we have a gender balanced leadership team, a board where a third are women and we continue to work to increase diversity across our business. Thankfully, my experiences both from a utility background and now a telecoms background, have been overwhelming positive in terms of career progression and diversity.
WFH may bring a true meritocracy to career advancement and promotions across all industries resulting in greater diversity amongst those in senior roles not just between men and women but also those of differing sexual orientation, social backgrounds, or ethnicity etc. The global WFH experiment is only beginning. The years ahead will see it honed further. For all workers it creates many opportunities for people to enjoy greater flexibility, work on their own terms and to shape their working week around their wider lives. For women, it can breakdown many barriers which have traditionally excluded them from the workforce or career advancement. WFH may not always be perfect but it can be transformative, particularly for women, and that is something to celebrate on International Women’s Day.
Michelle Mullally is SIRO Chief Financial Officer. SIRO is a joint venture company between ESB and Vodafone. It is delivering a 100% fibre-to-the-building broadband network with speed of 1 Gigabit per second across Ireland.