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How This Global Experiment in Remote Work Could Help Close the Gender Wage Gap - Or Not

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Michelle Cheng Harker, currently studying for her MBA at London Business School and completing a product research & development internship at Hey Mirza.

Through this crisis, teachers and carers have received well-deserved recognition as unsung heroes that (until now) enabled working parents to maintain some semblance of order between home and professional life. Under lockdown, parental duties have now interspersed with work-from-home duties; with many taking Zoom calls accompanied by their mini-me’s as they tenuously balance being a parent, worker, teacher and cleaner.

Starting with the bad news

A new Cambridge study of 15,000 people in the UK and US found that women are disproportionately shouldering the unpaid work of childcare and housework under lockdown, spending about an hour more on childcare and homeschooling than their partners. Similarly, a recent New York Times poll found stark differences in the perceived division of labour at home: 67% of women and 29% of men claimed they were fully or mostly responsible for housework during lockdown.

Some experts expect COVID will reverse the hard-won progress many countries have made in closing the gender pay gap. Women make up a larger share of employment in Community & Social Services, Education, Library & Training, Office & Administrative Support, and Personal Care & Services, all of which face greater precariousness in terms of reduced hours and terminations. They’re also more likely to scale back work hours or resign entirely for care duties.

There’s good news too

One of the biggest barriers for primary caregivers, who would otherwise prefer to participate fully in the economy, is our antiquated social construct for work hours and face-time. The outdated concept that work needs to occur between 9-5 (or longer) is no longer true for many occupations.

This modern workday didn't become the norm until Henry Ford started using shift work in his factories, and we're still living under that schedule. If anything, coronavirus has taught us that remote working is quite practical, and our days are much more flexible. As Sam Smethers, head of the Fawcett Society sees it, "we need to redesign the way we work. [...] The coronavirus has forced our hand to do just that."

Here are ways you can help influence change:

  1. Encourage your employer to continue flexible working post-lockdown: Many companies that were previously reticent to try remote work have been pleasantly surprised by the par or improved productivity of employees. Where you can, encourage this to be a long-term strategy - the 1 in 2 Americans would agree with you.

  2. Be part of a mainstream culture where work life balance is the norm: Nordic countries close to reaching full gender pay equity are able to do so in part because of a generalized societal expectation of work-life balance. As more companies consider mindfulness and mental health programmes, participate in the conversation to shift your workplace into one that respects boundaries.

  3. Practice splitting household work evenly: Whether or not you have children, observe and manage the division of labour at home. Anita Bhatia, assistant Secretary General and deputy executive director of the United Nations' women's agency says, "We have a lot of very supportive men in society but not enough, and we really need to work on the gender biases or the stereotypes that prevent equal sharing of care."

You might be surprised to learn we’ve been here before, a moment in history where the role of women at work is being shaped. A lot of people credit the post-WWII recovery as a ‘watershed’ moment in women’s labour rights. But Harvard researcher Claudia Goldin found it wasn’t as much of a boon as we might think; “Women, to be sure, were recruited during the early 1940s but, according to the revisionist view, many were forced off their jobs at war’s end to make room for returning GIs. Others left willingly when their husbands came home from service and still others married at war’s end and left the labor force. Many women who were young during the early 1940s and were employed in the war years became mothers of the baby boom and left their jobs to raise families.”

We have a chance now to speak up and play a part in shaping the future of work. Let’s make change stick this time, and let’s make the workplace great for future generations and for the people raising them right now.

Michelle is an intern researching the gender wage gap at Mirza.

Mirza is a soon-to-be launched startup focused on closing the gender wage gap. Follow their journey and launch here!

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