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IWD 2023: Women in the modern workplace – culture needs to catch up

International Women’s Day often leads to reflection – what has changed since last year? What has changed in the last five years? This year I have been reflecting – from a woman’s perspective – on the enormous changes to working life since the COVID-19 pandemic. While COVID-19 had a devastating impact on global health and economies, it also acted as a catalyst for modernisation in the workplace. Many aspects of this modernisation have had a beneficial impact on women. Hybrid working (spurred on by the widespread adoption of facilitating technologies) has been a game changer for women. 

The long road to a modern workplace

It wasn’t easy to begin with. 2020 was a very difficult year filled with uncertainty - initially, it felt like business was paused. My confidence went. When COVID-19 first hit, I thought that everything was going to go backwards. Conversely, digital began growing exponentially. Things began to change as work went fully online, and the tech was implemented to support it. I began to feel the benefits of it – both professionally and personally. It enabled me to work from home whilst juggling childcare responsibilities between myself and my partner. Whilst this wasn’t easy at the best of times, I believe that it’s created the start of a cultural shift in the way we work as a society.

Silver linings

Yes, there have been benefits for all workers: a greater focus on health and safety in the workplace and a greater awareness of employee well-being and mental health. Still, it’s the hybrid working that has truly pushed things in the right direction for women. Hybrid working, by its very nature, offers more flexibility to employees, allowing them to balance their professional and personal lives more easily. Women have struggled over the years (due to systemic and societal preconceptions) as the primary caregivers for children. While some women do choose this lifestyle as a valid and satisfying outcome for themselves, others have been relegated into roles that do not reflect their abilities, or have had their careers stunted, or have been paid less than their male counterparts – the list could go on.

Hybrid working levels the playing field for the genders in work – it allows women the flexibility to work around childcare responsibilities while easing the burden on them directly by giving their partners the same freedom. Whether a single mother, a same-sex mother or a heterosexual partnership, it allows any and all variations of couplings and genders to more easily access an equitable arrangement in their life/partnership. 

Still some way to go

While the technological changes brought on by the pandemic have levelled the playing field somewhat, there’s still a way to go. Many businesses could do more to support parents in the workplace – which would, in turn, further empower women. While mental health has had more of a spotlight, more firms need to look into support systems such as mental health first aiders to look out for colleagues who may be struggling with balancing personal and professional lives, even now. And when it comes to women directly, there must be a cultural shift: while the workplace has evolved into a new form, culture hasn’t – the age-old cliches still remain – women are by default still perceived and even expected to be the first to step into action when childcare is required.

Women are forced to make choices that cause them mental anguish or guilt on a daily basis – when they shouldn’t have to feel this way. Women should be able to be a mother, be a career woman, be both, or be neither – and feel no guilt. All businesses could go completely remote working with the most extravagant technology imaginable, but without cultural change alongside it, the true root of the problems facing women will never be addressed. As a society, we must shift (like the workplace shifted during and post-covid) to a more modern way of thinking. We have to flex our mindset to create that cultural shift. This starts with normalising flexible working, so mothers can continue to excel both at home and in the workplace.

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