26 September 2023

Will men dominate the office? The risk of a Hybrid Work Gender Gap

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The increase in flexible work arrangements due to the pandemic has been lauded as a positive change for women but Angela Priestley* says this could ultimately cause a different type of career challenge.

Corporate offices across Australia have transformed rapidly since the beginning of the pandemic.

Physically, we’re seeing employers changing their spaces and even taking smaller spaces.

Logistically, employers are introducing “Hybrid work weeks” for staff, while some – like Atlassian, Twitter and Telstra – are even saying staff will be able to work from home forever.

However, they will continue to have offices, with Atlassian currently building a new 40 storey headquarters in Sydney.

So will these massive changes be enough to support workplace gender equality efforts and possibly get more women into leadership positions, given a lack of flexibility in careers has long been a stumbling block for women looking to get ahead?

Not necessarily. We are seeing a new way of working, but it’s one that may not be shared equally.

The transformations the pandemic has brought on have gone a long way to normalising flexible work and get more men working from home, but such advances could be outweighed by other, unintended consequences.

For one, a number of surveys have found a stark gender divide in who is choosing – or wants to – return to the office.

The BBC recently asked if “male dominated offices” could actually be the way of the future, highlighting a UK survey finding 69 per cent of mothers want to work from home at least once a week, compared with 56 per cent of fathers.

Locally, design firm Hassell found in late 2020 that 47 per cent of men want to primarily work in an office, compared with 36 per cent of women.

Proximity bias

These findings could signal warning signs of “proximity bias”, according to Hall & Wilcox Partner and long-time flexible working advocate, Fay Calderone.

While we’ve long been concerned about “flexism” – the idea that working flexibly or at home could see you treated differently work – “proximity bias” presents a different challenge.

“Proximity Bias is what grows when certain groups of people gravitate around other people in the office – the impact of those added social interaction, how they may get access to better work and then better results, and then more promotions and pay rises,” says Calderone.

She says that people will ultimately follow their leaders and if those leaders (who are commonly still white middle-aged men with domestic infrastructure to support them at home) continue to go to the office, their staff will follow.

“Those who can’t go to the office, may be disadvantaged as a result.”

Women’s Agenda sat down to discuss these issues and more over lunch for the latest in our “Disrupt the Status Quo” series in partnership with law firm Hall & Wilcox.

The event occurred just prior to the current Sydney outbreak of the Delta COVID-19 strain, and the resulting Winter lockdown, which has seen workplaces once again closing their offices to staff with long-term consequences that may extend even further than the permanent changes we had expected.

High on the agenda of this discussion was how we could get more men to work flexibly from home and part time in a post COVID-19 world.

To support the conversation, we spoke extensively about expectations and stereotypes that still hinder opportunities for men to spend more time at home and get involved in caring responsibilities, and shared ideas and hopes around how stronger paid parental leave, childcare, shifting social attitudes and language, could help.

Rob Sturrock, a former solicitor and advocate for fatherhood, childcare and healthy masculinity – who in 2020 published his first book, Man Raises Boy – shared his own experiences as a parent.

He spoke about going “against the grain” of what’s expected of working fathers, by taking extended parental leave, working part time and being a full time stay at home dad.

In his book, he aims to show men that they are not alone in wanting to change the system, and that the value of care and being involved in family life is wonderful but there are still challenges to overcome.

“It’s really important that we find these ways to encourage men to see they have more options than they may realise,” he said.

“Show men that there is more than one way to be a breadwinner, and to do your career and have a family.

“There are options open to you.”

He said that regardless of where flexible work goes next and how many men take it up or continue to work from home, there’s still a lot of “cultural baggage” that needs to be unpacked.

“There’s the expectation that men work long hours, and then also suggestions that men are not good carers,” he said.

“As much as we want to think that younger men are coming through the system who will change this with time, the system may just change them instead.

“We can’t rely on demographic destiny here.”

Sturrock also warned against assuming people understand the need for parental leave, flexible work and for supporting more men into caring.

“It’s not necessarily that these ideas are self-evident to everyone. The case has to be made.

“We can fall into the trap of believing that people need more parental leave, but not everyone understands why.

“We need to still make the case and be articulate about why this change matters.”

People first

Meanwhile, what role can employers have and how far can they push it?

To help answer that question, we heard from Dr David Cooke, the Director of ESG Advisory, Chair of UN Global Company Network Australia, who recently finished up as Managing Director at Konica Minolta.

At Konica Minolta, Cooke led on some game-changing initiatives that were ahead of their time – including introducing 12 weeks of paid parental leave for ALL new parents, as well as massive adjustments to the company’s flexible work offerings.

These policies saw Cooke invited to share more on the experience at the UN Trailblazing Women Forum in New York. He recalls how the audience cheered as he shared that they removed the words “primary” and “secondary carer” from the name of the policy.

The leave could be taken at any time over three years, and they offered it retrospectively (on a pro rate scheme) to anyone who’d had a child come into their lives in the three previous years.

“The reality is that not a huge number of people benefitted from his policy, but everybody appreciated it,” he said on its impact on culture.

Cooke also sought to address flexible work during his time at Konica Minolta, but not in a rigid way that prevented people from progressing their careers or dictated to them what level or kind of flexibility they could and could not take.

He said he always believed that “flexibility must be flexible” and it’s not up to a manager, or a CEO, to determine things like when and how a person should take it without considering their needs.

By late 2019 and prior to COVID-19, Konika Minolta Australia’s office already had 51 per cent of managers working flexibly, with 42 per cent working remotely at least one day a fortnight.

Cooke also highlighted the need for flexible work to be modelled right from the top. He recalled being told that if other people could see him as the managing director working from home, then they would believe it’s ok.

“So I would work from home, one day a week, and I’d send a photo of me at home In my lounge room.

“That also meant that they got to see a bit of my lounge room and could peep into my personal world a little bit.

He said he firmly believes that leaders must always act in the best interests of the company’s people.

He said that any conversation about flexible work, paid parental leave and how to support staff in the out-of-work lives is an opportunity to decide what kind of company you want to be.

Male role models necessary

Generally, those present at the roundtable discussion said that real paid parental leave and flexible working options for men can be a key step in making a difference, but it needs to be more widely available and men need to see examples of other men taking it.

As Sturrock said: like any mother, as a father he too learned the skills he applies to looking after his young children on the job.

An extended period of parental leave helped with that, but so has working part time and his current status as a stay-at-home father.

But the reality is – as many at the table agreed – paid parental leave can only go so far in supporting workplace gender equality, and in preventing the “proximity bias” that may rise in hybrid office environments.

First, paid parental leave needs to go beyond corporates, with the government’s scheme significantly overhauled to better support working parents.

Expensive and inaccessible early childhood education may also further widen gaps between who does and doesn’t go to offices.

Ultimately, social expectations and norms must be challenges – in deliberate and urgent ways.

If women “Opt Out” so must men

Fay Calderone highlighted some of the talent that’s already been lost in a profession like law as women are said to have “opted out” out of the workforce, usually around the senior associate level, one of the final steps before becoming a partner.

“But they haven’t ‘opted out’,” she says on the expression.

“I hate that term. If you look at what they were trying to juggle at home, and in the office being on at all hours of the day, if you see how they have been struggling mentally and physically from sheer exhaustion, you can’t believe it was their “option” to leave their firm or practice.”

While Calderone has long seen the value of real flexible working opportunities helping to prevent this, she also believes a massive shift in men taking up part time and flexible work could ultimately normalise a better sense of balance between home and work.

And could see more men and women able to actually progress their careers, while pursuing real flexibility.

However, back to that ‘proximity bias’, Calderone says she’s already attending business events that are more dominated by men in the past, and worries about who will “choose” to return to the office.

So what’s the solution? Tell all staff to go back to the office?

“That could pose legal and logistical challenges,” says Calderone.

Instead and once again, we need significant cultural change to extend on from the massive logistical changes Australian workplaces have experienced over the past 18 months.

“That includes seeing all leaders adopt to the hybrid way of work, leading by example and working from home some of the time.

“Only then, and as surely as night turns to day, will workers around them follow suit.”

*Angela Priestley is the Founding Editor of Women’s Agenda, and now heads up the publication’s parent company Agenda Media. She’s a journalist and editor turned media entrepreneur and business owner.

This article first appeared at womensagenda.com.au.

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