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8 March 2022

The “new normal” has turned the office into a men’s club

Women are more likely to apply for remote working roles, and the gender pay gap is getting worse.

By Emma Haslett

“It’s like Truth Christmas!” enthused the author Caitlin Moran when she discovered the Gender Pay Gap Twitter Bot – which, to celebrate International Women’s Day, has been methodically retweeting every employer that mentioned the day and adding that organisation’s gender pay gap. 

Some were surprising: in the London Fire Brigade, for instance, women’s median hourly pay is 2.7 per cent higher than men’s. Others were laughable. Quoting a tweet from internet security company NetApp asking “how will you #BreakTheBias?”, the bot calmly added: “in this organisation, women’s median hourly pay is 37 per cent lower than men’s.” Awkward.

What is particularly galling about this is that the “new normal” ushered in by the pandemic was supposed to solve the practical issues that kept women from being paid more. Now that hybrid working is standard practice, women are freed from the drudgery of commuting – so they can collect their children from school, do all the housework and climb to the top of the career ladder, thus closing the gender pay gap. Thanks, new normal!

However, what is actually happening is that in the post-pandemic workplace, two classes are developing. Those who are in the office benefit from being “in the room” when decisions are made, and those working from home are left out – with the sinking feeling that, as Boris Johnson threatened in October, they are “going to be gossiped about and… lose out” by not being physically present.

The reality of the new normal is that the home-working contingent is largely female: LinkedIn research last year showed that women are 26 per cent more likely to apply for remote working roles than men. But research by the Chartered Management Institute has found 13 per cent of managers believe hybrid working will limit workplace opportunities for women.

The consequence of this is that, despite men becoming more involved in childcare, the gender pay gap widened during the pandemic: in October last year, official data showed women were paid 87p for every £1 paid to men in 2020, “worse than in 2019, when the pay gap was 12.8 per cent, and in 2018, when the gap was 11.0 per cent,” according to the FT

Employers have had plenty of warning about this: in November, the Bank of England economist Catherine Mann urged women to return to the office. “I do worry that we will see those two tracks develop, and we will pretty much know who’s going to be on which track, unfortunately,” she said.  

Amanda Blanc, the chief executive of Aviva, has also warned that “if what you see is that all the men come back into the office and the women don’t, then obviously the women are not around when some of the conversations are being had and they could miss out on opportunities.” Or, as Brigid Schulte, director of New America’s Better Life Lab, told Politico: “You are mommy tracked to the billionth degree.” 

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These warnings all indicate that the onus is on women to get back to the office: go back, they are told, and you won’t be left out. But the workplace was already broken for women – they were already struggling to juggle childcare while progressing up the career ladder more slowly and being paid less than their male counterparts. Why would going back to the way things were change that now? At least with hybrid working, they can pick the kids up from school.

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to rewrite the rules, but rather than putting the burden on women, businesses need to take the lead. Rather than performative tweets about International Women’s Day, as the great return to the office begins, companies should take steps to ensure an equitable environment for everyone, whether or not they are hybrid working, by introducing robust practices that mean women don’t lose out. Now is the time to ensure no one is put on the “mommy track”.

[See also: “Flexible working has nothing to do with working from home”: Anna Whitehouse on how the workplace punishes women]

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