'There's no going back': The pandemic has shone a light on the flex future we should strive for

‘There’s no going back’: The pandemic has shone a light on the flex future we should strive for

working parents

“Revolutions that last don’t happen from the top down. They happen from the bottom up.”

Gloria Steinem

Have you seen that fab video that went viral in April, of an English family singing their very own lockdown version of Les Misérables’ One Day More? It’s funny and poignant (plus packed full of far too much talent for one family), and it firmly planted the Les Mis soundtrack into my brain throughout #iso.

No matter what side of the musical theatre fence you fall on, one thing’s for certain – Les Mis and their rumblings of a revolution are starting to feel a little … How should I put this? Relevant? Familiar? All round motivating?

Because over the past few months, many of us have been wondering what this global pandemic would mean for us all – long term. What changes it could enable and what we could gain from these months of disarray. And you know what? From my perspective, it’s become pretty clear. Lockdown has been so much more than a few months of flexibility. It’s shaken the ground below our feet, to make way for a revolution. A working parents’ revolution…do you hear the people sing?

The old way wasn’t working

For far too long, it’s been an uphill battle for working parents (predominantly mothers). Research – too much of it to be honest – shows that the old way wasn’t working. That parents and carers were discriminated against and penalised in the workforce and weren’t empowered to balance their careers and care. That businesses lost top performers to caring responsibilities. That women – 95% of primary carers – and part timers (just 6% of managers in Australia work part time), continued to be under-represented in leadership roles, and live with a gender pay gap of 14%.

And don’t even get me started on childcare…But now that I’ve gone there – how is it that a nation like Australia is still so stuck in the dark ages when it comes to mainstreaming affordable early learning? In the past 10 years Australian parents have spent up to 25% of their income on childcare. Government failings to provide an affordable early learning system remains the single biggest barrier to female participation….

And that’s just the impact on those of us with relative privilege.

In a webinar this week I was asked by a manager how best to accommodate the flexible work arrangements of a single mother. According to Australian Council of Social Services, more than one-third of single mothers – 37% – live below the poverty line. My response was to drop the pity, and prioritise dignity, and that means doing whatever is in your power to keep that mother employed and engaged in meaningful work

There’s no going back

There’s no doubt that his pandemic has enforced underlying gender norms – norms that see women shouldering the majority of care responsibilities (76.2% of unpaid care hours, to be specific). Newgate Research’s national poll revealed that women have carried a ‘triple load’ throughout the pandemic, which includes paid work, care work, and the mental labour of worrying (that sounds familiar … ), plus, they’ve had the kicker of looking after educational responsibilities for their kids, which in turn can limit work opportunities.

But in these grey skies, we’ve also seen some glimmers of sunshine.

COVID-19 – for all its many faults, has shaken things up for working parents.

Many single parents too have benefited from the new coronavirus payment to the tune of $550 per-fortnight in addition to the usual JobSeeker benefit.

And of course the ultimate game changer has been that childcare (whilst not a perfect model) has been FREE!!!

And from a workplace perspective, we now know that it’s possible – completely, utterly possible – for mandated flexibility to be implemented and enabled a greater involvement of men in care and domestic work – involvement that could have important impacts on gender equality.

Now that things are starting to return to ‘normal’, employers are calling for teams to inch back to the office and the government is alluding to rolling back childcare and coronavirus payments, our gender equality progress faces a massive risk of slipping backward.

So how do we snap forward to create ongoing flexible work practices that not only contribute to a more equitable sharing of care and domestic work, but also support women’s increased labour force participation?

Flex Forever? Proceed with caution

Many workplaces seem to be rightly focused on flexibility moving forward. But we say proceed with caution where flexibility does not level the playing field.

As workplaces survey staff about flexible working preferences and travel/commute logistics, we’re simultaneously hearing that those who are ‘ready to return to work immediately’ are, for the most part, male executives and supervisors, and younger people with no caring responsibilities.

Policy-making post COVID-19 cannot be to the detriment of gender equality. In fact, given the impact of this pandemic on gender inequality, they should be exactly the opposite. Workplaces need to avoid normalising women (and some men) as an invisible class of workers if they elect to take up more flexibility, particularly while ‘care-free’ managers (still disproportionately men) return to the office to get noticed and to advance their careers. Doing so would be disastrous – for women, men and workplaces.

If workplaces fail to reimagine the way they return to work, and fail to view the opportunity with a gendered lens, we – as a society – will have lost the lesson. To make flex stick, we need to rise up and demand better! Flex must be about levelling the playing field and new policies must enshrine gender equality and anti-discrimination principles.

“If you are successful, it is because somewhere, sometime, someone gave you a life or an idea that started you in the right direction. Remember also that you are indebted to life until you help some less fortunate person, just as you were helped.” 

Melinda Gates

This is our moment to LIFT

Of course – it’s not just up to our managers and leaders to drive change. It’s everyone’s responsibility and we need to take matters into our own hands (it is a revolution, after all!). This is the time to seek out and nurture relationships with sponsors. It’s the time to know – and own – our ambition. To have a professional vision that is clear and propels us forward. To know organisational policies so that we can take control of our careers and our futures. In short? It’s time to own our agency and be empowered.

We have enough research about how bad the world is for women, or carers! Instead, demand to be served with what works. Which is exactly what we at Grace Papers focus on – evidence based social change strategies that actually work. So that each and every one of us understand our agency, our relative privilege, and how we can use both to move towards a world in which women and men are equally responsible for the most important decisions in our world.

We don’t just owe it to ourselves, or even to our children. We owe it to every woman who has no voice at the table, and to those responsible for starting the many phases of this movement towards equality.

Now is our time to stand on the shoulders of the great many giants who have paved the way before us. Feminists – women and men – who demanded the right to vote for women, to no fault divorce, enshrined rights to request flexible work, sex discrimination protections, equal pay and more recently childcare and paid parental leave.

More recently, and driven by employee activism, we’ve heralded generational change to outdated attitudes which have seen corporate leaders increasingly involved in human rights advocacy for social policy. Would we have been able to celebrate same sex marriage without CEO activism?

As Gloria Steinem so rightly says, ‘the future depends entirely on what each of us does every day.’ Her views are backed up by social change theory that says the most effective way to drive social change is to empower those with most to gain. Which means that each one of us (working parents) has a role to play in snapping forward out of this pandemic, into a world that better reflects the needs of those with care responsibilities, of modern families and for that matter modern business.

Want to help drive the change and address flex stigma once and for all?

  1. Know your rights & how to use them responsibly and effectively.
  2. Get clarity as to what you need, what you want, and your value.
  3. Understand your agency and be prepared to advocate for it.
  4. Speak up and be prepared to ask the difficult questions of your leaders, to be and see the change you wish to see in this world.
  5. Remind yourself that this isn’t just a responsibility to yourself – its our collective responsibility to advocate alongside those without access to the same power, privilege and influence, including the next generation of future leaders. 


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