The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the office culture that many of us were familiar with, as working from home becomes our new norm. Some people have begun to question if this change in our work environment has set in motion permanent changes, where travel to work and the existence of an office space become unnecessary. The past six months have shown us that working from home has not caused severe complications to our productivity levels. If anything, we have only witnessed this effect on the Retail and Hospitality industries, as they face major complications due to a temporary but steep reduction in footfall and sales.
But what will employment look like specifically for women who are or will be working from home, after COVID-19 office restrictions are lifted? It’s not a mystery that workplace regulations have been altered to address the needs of women that were otherwise intentionally ignored. Workplace laws were originally in favour of a patriarchal presence in the workplace, creating a stubborn environment where women continue to experience some avoidable struggles, generation to generation.
The history of women’s rights in the workplace in the UK is nothing short of a disappointment. Gender dynamics were shifted during World War One following a demand for women to work in jobs that were left vacant by men who went to fight in the war. The gender discrimination women faced remained undefeated as we observe the laws ameneded in the following years. The Sex Discrimination Act of 1919 was designed to remove the discriminatory policies that disqualified women from certain positions on the grounds of sex. The 1970 Equal Pay Act was introduced to make it illegal to discriminate against women by paying them less for equally skilled work. This did not have substantial ground for women to claim equal pay as companies only raised the pay rate of women to equate with the lowest pay rate designed for men. Thirteen years later in 1983, The Equal Pay Amendment was passed by Parliament, allowing women to be paid the same amount as men for roles that are the same.
The Office of National Statistics has reported that in this pandemic, women are more likely to work at home than men (47.5% and 45.7%). The close difference between the contribution of both men and women working from home is a clear indication of how this is the time for our government to assess the changes that need to be made in employment laws and regulations, to aid the productivity of the gender that is most discriminated against but still shows up for work. Slowly but surely, the recognition of women’s rights have come a long way. The transition women made from being housewives to becoming working individuals was resisted by society, mostly men, as a large part of that transition had to be protested into existence.
The concept of working from home seems like it is going to present a brighter future for women in the workplace. Working from home can offer women the option of spending their days at home when they are in pain and discomfort from unavoidable periods, causing many to suffer from primary and secondary dysmenorrhea. For myself, the option to work from home is an option I wish existed as I spent several days out of the year, stuck at a desk, needing the comfort of a hot water bottle, a comfortable seat and an easily accessible personal toilet to help me stay as productive as I can be.
The safety measure against the spread of COVID-19 has illustrated how simple it can be to implement a work from home option as part of a Menstrual Leave plan in workplace policies. Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is the usual dispute to this idea, but some companies in the UK have recognised the benefits of such motion and have incorporated this into their workplace policies. A woman is eligible to use her sick days for her period, provided that she has a doctor’s note, but the issue with this is that sick pay can only apply if you are off for 4 or more days, and pay will only start from the fourth day. In 2016, YouGov asked 940 women about their experiences of period pain in the workplace; 57% said it had affected their work and productivity levels. The current laws set in place for the workplace do not take into consideration the basic rights a woman needs to have at work. Periods are a consistent experience and a woman should not have to use a sick day, potentially unpaid, to manage the pain, physical and emotional responsibilities that it comes with. Many companies have shown initiative to target some of those issues women many face whilst at work by stocking toilets with sanitary products, but that does very little to help with extreme physical pain, fatigues and the emotional downsides that come with menstruation.
An amendment to SSP laws can introduce another difficulty for a woman’s career progression. Maternity leave and other caring responsibilities have been reported to be the most significant barrier to a woman's career progression. Women have to work harder than men for a promotion, and adding the possible need to take a few days off every month or to work from home away from their teams, can deter companies from promoting a woman.
The UK has been suffering the lingering problem of productivity, trailing behind its European neighbors. In addition to the severe underinvestment in skills, addressing the rights of women in the workplace and amending SSP to adopt Menstruation Leave can be a start.
Working from home is expected to become a permanent change in the way we work and this may introduce a potential downside for women who will have domestic responsibilities. With women carrying out an overall average of 60% more unpaid work than men, as reported by the Office of National Statistics, women may be relegated at home. The added responsibility of being in charge of the household in more ways than men, staying home could mean that they are still expected to work in other ways. Will this bring women back to the 1950s in the sense that they won't be relieved from their social and familial responsibilities? It seems likely that this can happen if it is not already the case for some women working from home. The question of how women are going to juggle work, childcare and spousal responsibilities; if those factors exist in their lives, needs to be addressed between partners and other individuals in the home.
As you finish reading this article, remember that if men experienced the difficulties women face whilst working, many of the changes required to make it easier for women to work would have been implemented already. It should not require extreme changes of circumstances like a pandemic to begin the conversation of how the workplace can be made better for women, let alone demonstrate consideration.
Written by Bethel Haimanot