The Role of the Working Mum
By George Dobbins
The daily commute is now from a bedroom to a hastily thrown together work-space. For those with children, there is the added pressure of family challenges now physically in the new ‘home-office’. According to the Office for National Statistics’ research in 2019, 75.1% of women with children were in work in the UK, compared to 92.6% of fathers. This 17.5% difference, whilst far from equal, does not initially appear to present too disparaging a problem. However, 28.5% of working mothers had to reduce their working hours due to childcare reasons, versus just 4.8% of fathers. It is working women who still bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities significantly more than their male counterparts. With the closure of schools during the first lockdown and the omniscient anxiety of rising health concerns leading into the Christmas period in the second, working mothers are experiencing disproportionately negative impacts.
Working women are not exclusively also working mothers, and working parents are not exclusively working mothers; the distinction must be made, but companies should not ignore the new challenges that the pandemic has created for women who have had to balance full-time parental and professional roles simultaneously. Examining the new challenges faced by working mothers specifically can create a space to tackle the status quo of gender norms entangled in the professional world. Companies could take the time to understand the difficulties that women in particular may be facing.
There is an opportunity to lead with more compassion, empathy, and consideration. For example, for a working mother, the new demands of WFH mean that professional responsibilities are now much harder to detangle from family responsibilities. These demands accumulate in the home alongside the stresses of a professional job. Working from home has made it exponentially harder for those with primary caregiving duties, as their workload has effectively doubled. Looking specifically at the holiday period, it is typically women who play a more active role in creating Christmas at home, and who may be experiencing emotional strain worrying about looking after children and elderly relatives, as well as fitting in the time to focus on their careers. As the pressure rises and we head into a winter unlike any experienced before, perhaps it is more important than ever in 2020 for employers to look at how they could help women balance these stresses. Change can facilitate progress, but it can also catalyse stress, especially for women who were already expending energy on balancing the demands of important responsibilities.
As it is their responsibility to create an optimal working environment, how can companies use the current situation as an opportunity to examine how they could actively be on the lookout for ways to lead with compassion and empathy? For example, expecting people to work the hours they normally would have been commuting, or on the school run, could unfairly affect women, as this could mean being asked to prioritise work over family. Furthermore, an expectation that employees will endeavour to physically return to the office as much as possible, and as soon as possible, whilst perhaps beneficial for those without caregiving duties, does not consider those who may be in charge of caring for vulnerable dependents, such as new-born babies, or elderly relatives. These changes will directly impact women’s futures as emotional strain becomes integrated as part of their working world. If women are not so immediately available for video calls or easily able to meet deadlines due to other demands, will this lead to a prejudiced assumption that they are less capable of managing their workload? Or could it lead to a recognition of achievement in women whose workloads have disproportionately expanded?
The pandemic can be an opportunity for leaders to show the way by showing they care. Empathetic and compassionate leadership styles should be championed. For example, there is space now more than ever to re-examine what is considered a genuinely flexible working style. Are people able to work from home as and when it is needed, or is ‘flexibility’ a token word to mask a ‘work-from-home-but-only-once-a-week-and-always-on-a-Friday approach? Furthermore, the way leaders recognise achievement could change, moving from analysing the number of hours worked (which could encourage mindless mouse-movement over real engagement) to results-based assessment criteria. This also poses challenges surrounding women’s career progression – companies could reconsider their promotion criteria, considering the work of candidates in a more holistic way. Perhaps they should take into account not only the work people produce, but also the circumstances in which it was produced.
Moreover, if the demands are never-ending, women could be at higher risk of burning out. It is not a sustainable way of working or living if you have to expend additional energy in the virtual working world, as well as on real-life family duties. They could be highly skilled and experienced, but more likely to leave if their personal situation is not considered with enough empathy and care. Inflexibility could discourage people from joining if the company isn’t willing to bend with the myriad of different personal circumstances. Leading by example has never been more important as we look to companies to set the new standard – a one-size-has-to-fit-all policy may no longer good be enough. By taking a personal interest in employees and managing short term expectations in these challenging times, companies can help to safeguard not only the success of their business, but the wellbeing of their employees. For example, taking a personal interest in individuals and ensuring a holiday is taken. Even more comprehensive approaches, such as providing company-wide subscriptions to meditation services, or creating support networks for mothers and carers, could help mitigate any emotional strain that could impact people’s ability to enjoy their work. One of the key takeaways from Beaumont Bailey’s webinar in May on ‘Engaging the Workforce’ was that there is a direct correlation between companies who make their employees feel the most looked after, and those with the best productivity. People actively want to work harder for a place where they feel looked after, valued, and listened to. For every bend and flexible solution work out, there rises the potential for increased results to spring out of it.
It is an unfathomably difficult time for everyone right now, and there are certain situations where women are going to be the most detrimentally affected. As working from home in lockdown mystifies what an office is, perhaps companies should consider incorporating more nurturing aspects when redefining what an office could be. Productivity and empathy are not mutually exclusive, but work in conjunction with each other. The companies who lookout for those who may be struggling disproportionately, such as women, and lead with empathy and compassion will come out of the other side of the pandemic not only stronger, but more connected. We are not all in the same boat, but all in the same storm; if someone’s boat becomes a work stressful place to live and work simultaneously, companies should be sensitive to that. Employers have the opportunity now more than ever to prove the existence of integrity, care, and compassion in their company culture.
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