Covid has given us an opportunity to address some inequalities in the workplace. Let’s not let it get away

Featured article - 08 March 2022
By Fiona Flowers, SCIE Head of Practice Development

Head-shot of the author, Fiona Flowers, SCIE Head of Practice Development

As I reflect back over the last two years, so much has changed for me on a personal level both as a human being but as a woman. I become a first-time mum in 2020 – the height of the pandemic and it highlighted to me just how far we have to go to ensure equality for all including women.

Anyone who has had a child will know how completely bewildered, worried and shell- shocked you are when you first take this little human home and wonder how are you going to make sure they eat, sleep – how do I know they’re happy, what cry is this?

Trying to negotiate being a new mum, adapting to my new identity whilst also grappling to maintain some of my old one was tough. With no face-to-face baby or support groups and very little and in some case no access to health visitors and support for me was hugely challenging and one that I have probably not reflected on completely in order to save me from re-living some of the trauma.

So whilst I’m going to focus on some of the positive aspects of what COVID has enabled for working mothers, I think it would be remiss of me to not touch upon my lived experience as a woman and a first time mother in the pandemic. Additionally, that while I focus on working mothers as this is my lived experience that is not to say that what I reflect on isn’t relevant for other people.

Before I became a mum, I was worried about the impact it would have on my career and had similar worries that Kathryn has outlined in a previous blog. Would people think I was less committed as I had to work around childcare? How would I juggle all my commitments? Would I forget everything up to that point in my career when I returned??

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t forget and even managed to remember my password! Also I have never felt that people thought I was less committed and I’m actually better at commitment juggling and time management! And actually, whilst I was on maternity leave, the opportunity to have an interview for a promotion came up in SCIE and I took it. I never once felt like I shouldn’t go for it and was actively encouraged to, given my experience and knowledge (I got it btw!). These opportunities and encouragement and support to take them should be available to working mothers and mothers on maternity leave, but I know that isn’t the case in some other organisations.

So many businesses were (and some still are) are missing out on promoting and supporting brilliant women because of the need to be flexible given they are working mothers. What COVID has done is propelled the role of flexible working to the consciousness of all businesses and helped hold a mirror up to outdated views on flexible and home working. It has also given some employees the power to leave jobs where the status quo is trying to be forced back post pandemic and given people the confidence to demand better.

Added to this, I consider myself lucky that I didn’t have to juggle work and childcare/home schooling. For those that did, and research shows the brunt of the work was borne by working mothers shows you how resilient and skilled we are and you’re missing out on huge talent if you don’t recognise that

A different leadership style is key, one which understands that as a leader of an organisation your job is to enable people to be the best they can be, and success is about supporting those around you to realise their potential and knowing their contribution to shared goals not traditional hierarchical models of management. By creating flexible and supportive working environments this will also enable a more diverse workforce which also has shown to underpin more successful organisations. Furthermore, what you would hope is that by enabling flexible working practices across organisations, this enables a shared distribution of roles and responsibilities that are joint between care givers so that the expectations of childcare don’t automatically fall to the mother and help shift societal expectations further and that we’re no longer surprised or congratulatory of a father/partner working flexibly to ensure he/they are able to parent!

However, we also need to be careful that for those that are working flexibly and from home more, they are not discriminated against because you are not always physically in the office. I’ve heard friends talk about feeling left out or actively excluded from meetings and events as they are not in the office. Conversely for those businesses that have gone totally remote there needs to be plenty of opportunities for providing connection and reflective learning and practice that isn’t all on a screen. I know I am hugely grateful for my ability to work flexibly and love it when I get to go to the office/ meetings but know that I don’t have to juggle this 5 days a week only for me to be ratty and tired for when I see my child or completely miss many of their milestones. What does SCIE get in return? Well me of course! But in all seriousness a committed, flexible employee, who can juggle competing demands who adapts to business needs and delivers and who knows they are also not dropping the ball at home.

SCIE’s vision is to “improves the lives of people of all ages by co-producing, sharing, and supporting the use of the best available knowledge and evidence about what works in practice” and I can’t do work to do that very well if I am not supported to be the best I can be through valuing and developing my experience, and enabling me to work flexibly so that I can do the things meaningful to me. We need more organisations to step up and embrace this so that all working mothers have equal access to opportunities and that old fashioned working practices aren’t stopping rising talent from being realised.

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