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The new industrial revolution – Will women benefit from the changing work environment?

Shona O'Hea Shona O'Hea


2020 has been a year unlike any other in recent history. Things we took for granted have fundamentally changed when it comes to how, where and when we work.

In Ireland the 12th of March 2020 signified a total change in our concept of working. Overnight a whole workforce had to halt normal operations and kick into a business continuity phase. We had to down tools and set up home offices at kitchen tables, bedrooms, shared living rooms and even ironing boards in some cases.

While most businesses had some percentage of staff working remotely or had the ability to do so this wasn’t the case for all but what we saw in that week following the 12 March was how rapidly people adapted and how robust our technology platforms were to be able to cope with the change.  Without knowing it our businesses were future proofed beyond what we was ever envisaged in any disaster recovery or BCP.

Now nearly a year on we have enjoyed the benefits of this new working environment such as reduced commuting, more time with family and the levelling of the playing field in certain circumstances such as being able to attend international meetings without travelling. However there has also been challenges, such as juggling home schooling with back to back meetings, reduced collaboration and the impact that has on innovation and creativity. 

So now organisations are thinking about how to take advantage of these changes and use them to their advantage. In the 66% of respondents felt that a more flexible work environment would result in better working options for women.

In a year that saw the appointment of the first female to ever head a major Wall Street bank, with Jane Fraser taking up the reigns as CEO of Citigroup this month (Feb 2021).  She is a mother who worked part time as a partner in a previous organisation while raising her young family.  Announcements like this are huge in terms of the impact of visible high profile role models and keeping the topic of gender diversity front of mind and all done against the backdrop of a global pandemic.


My own experience this year has mostly been positive in terms of being a woman at work. Having been mostly working from home for the previous year, I have had a baby, been on maternity leave and also been made partner within my firm. So while my personal example demonstrates working from home wasn’t a limiting factor in progression for me I am conscious we were all in the same boat this year. I wonder as restrictions lift if someone working from home full time will ever get the same opportunities and visibility as the person who’s sitting next to the boss every day?  This will be the real challenge for organisations. While increased flexibility has proven to be welcomed by most women and men in traditional office set ups, a robust framework around this will need to be created for businesses to ensure critical aspects of face to face interaction and on the job learning are not lost.


And while I largely agree that certain aspects of working from home have generally has some positive aspects it’s important to remember that wasn’t across the board and there were hugely different impacts on women depending on their personal circumstances. Unfortunately some of the most vulnerable women in our society have been the most negatively affected which we have seen for instance with the huge increases in reports of domestic abuse. So while a flexible working environment can benefit women it needs to be an option rather than an imposed situation.

A worrying finding from the report was the low number of firms who actually record statistics around diversity in their firms. Only a quarter of firms who responded record detailed diversity data and use this to recruitment, retention and career development decisions. It’s long been agreed that what gets measured gets done.  So until firms understand how their recruitment and internal promotion policies are affecting their pipeline there won’t be a significant and consistent change.


Now the cat is out of the bag with regards to working from home it’s not going back in. So as organisations start to look to the future and think about how to incorporate more flexible working options the challenge will be to ensure staff who take up these options are not disadvantaged or unconsciously excluded. How can an organisation retain the water cooler moments, the creative energy of in-person meetings and still embrace options which will support working mothers, long distance commuters, those taking care of other dependants and the raft of other people who would just like to work in a slightly different way?

The successful organisations of the future will use this revolution in work practices to create new ways of working, through more inclusive policies and flexible opportunities, such as term time contracts, flexible work hours and working from anywhere. This approach will not only facilitate women through all stages of their careers such as returning to work but will equally be welcomed by men alike and therefore shouldn’t be dismissed by organisations.

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