Hybrid working: Let’s talk about women
Industry Voices

Hybrid working: Let’s talk about women

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Natalie Billingham, Akamai’s VP sales and MD EMEA, warns that hybrid working may not work for women

While whispers of better ways to work are nothing new, the pandemic has certainly accelerated the conversation with many organisations now planning to allow employees to work from home.

Indeed, workers are ready to demand more – LinkedIn’s latest research shows three in 10 now feel confident enough to ask for flexible working. The four-day week is also back on the table. Thirty UK companies will take part in a pilot scheme run by the 4 Day Week Campaign, thinktank Autonomy and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College. These flexible working trends should certainly be top of mind for business leaders as they look to the future. However, it is important to note that while many employees appreciate the flexibility, a growing number of experts are also expressing concerns that hybrid work environments may negatively impact women.

Women and the pandemic

It is tempting to think that hybrid working is a big equaliser for women. Not only does it remove any stigma of working from home, it also makes it easier for parents to maintain full-time jobs alongside caring responsibilities. However, the hybrid working model can present its own set of challenges to women’s career progression.

During the pandemic, many women ended up bearing not just more housework with everyone at home, but also the bulk of at-home education and childcare responsibilities, while also working themselves. Just a few months after the outbreak of Covid-19, the United Nations warned that the “limited gender equality gains of the past decade are at risk of being rolled back”. In the following months several reports affirmed the potential negative impacts of working from home for women in particular.

With that lockdown experience in mind, before they wade deeper into the concept of hybrid working, employers should take a step back and consider whether their approach really does deliver an equitable outcome for women. If not, consider how can we ensure that the “new normal” is an improved place for women in the workforce.

Proximity bias

Without deliberate forethought another issue hybrid working can create is proximity bias. This is when employees who spend more time in the office, physically in the presence of their bosses, remain front of mind and are therefore more likely to be offered new opportunities, particularly ad hoc ones. Research by Vitality supports this notion, which reported that 83% of workers said presenteeism existed in their workplace.

With women more likely to work from home, they are more likely to suffer from a lack from career progression – something that businesses must work hard to prevent.

So what can leaders do to make sure out of sight does not mean out of mind? One way of overcoming this is to build awareness of cognitive bias by deploying a comprehensive set of training and inclusive management techniques. For example, leaders should ensure they are connecting with everyone in their team weekly and reflecting at the end of the week on who they spoke with in recent days. It may also be important to take an objective tally of which projects are going to which individuals. If leaders find a trend whereby those getting more work and praise are also the same people that they have done a better job connecting with, a simple checklist for the allocation of projects and new opportunities can help to overcome this behaviour.

War for talent

Hybrid working opens up a business’s potential talent pool, far beyond traditional geographic boundaries, which for those with families or caring opportunities can offer the option of living in locations that suit their family life and having a successful career.

However, many women can still be put off applying for these roles, feeling they will not fit in. In fact, research reveals that women tend to only apply for jobs where they meet 100% of the requirements for the role, while men will typically apply if they only meet 60% of them. Therefore, companies must review and revise their hiring practices to ensure that they are not unintentionally excluding female applicants.

One way that companies can do this is by addressing gender coding in their job descriptions.

“Gender coding” refers to signals, such as words, phrases, or traits, that have been historically associated with or attributed to either the male or female gender. At Akamai, we found that by reviewing the wording of our job descriptions, we greatly increased the diversity of candidates applying for these roles.

I also encourage business leaders to look at their long-term strategies. One which demonstrates a longer-term strategic view is investment in young women’s STEM initiatives. This is particularly important as women still account for less than 15% of employees in STEM-related roles in the UK. In empowering and encouraging women to recognise that STEM is a place for them too, we are taking a big step towards increasing diversity of thought and therefore achieving better outcomes. That is why, as part of my work with the Akamai Foundation, we were able to bring the first Girls Who Code summer camp to the UK last year and to provide grants to organisations like Stemettes. By investing in these initiatives, we can inspire, educate, and equip young women for futures in technology-related fields.

Academic studies have proven that more female employees makes an organisation a better place to work for people of all genders. Striving to overcome proximity bias and attract and retain diverse talent, are just two of the ways businesses can try to create post-pandemic workplaces that are fairer and more equal. Not only will this create a more productive, engaged and loyal workforce, it will also enable businesses to reach their fullest potential.

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