Home working policies: how do they tip the work-life balance?

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Aideen O’Driscoll, Ardmore’s Vice President of Corporate Services spoke at Women in Shipping 2021, sharing her view on how to ensure that the move towards hybrid-working does not do more harm than good for women working in the shipping industry. Below, Aideen considers the impact that home working policies – both intended and unintended – have had for women in the maritime industry, and where we go from here.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, on its current trajectory, it will now take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide. This is up from the previous Global Gender Gap Report, which estimated the gap would close in 99.5 years. Because of Covid-19, the gender gap will take an additional 36 years to close. How did this happen?

In 2020, in most jurisdictions and industries, employees were suddenly required to work from home. With men and women both being at home, it was assumed domestic and childcare duties would be more equally distributed. However, over time, statistics indicate that in general women have carried an unequal share of the unpaid work of keeping families going.

Women are also significantly more likely to care for sick relatives and acquaintances. This additional workload has led to a disproportionate percentage of women as opposed to men dropping out of the workforce. We can only assume that if this is the case, women have also missed out on opportunities for promotion or advancement.

Remote working

Since women typically take on more responsibility when it comes to childcare, even before the pandemic they were far more likely to request flexible working arrangements. Working from home some of the time can help to relieve some of the pressures that come from juggling family and work, while attendance at the office can help with maintaining connection with colleagues. By adopting a hybrid model, employers and employees generally agree that this could be a real benefit for women, particularly mothers with young children.

However, we have to be aware of potential unintended consequences. What happens if a higher proportion of men return to the office and women stay working from home, at least partially if not entirely? It is possible that the gender divide will widen even further – men will feel more removed from domestic responsibilities while women will shoulder more of the burden? And in the office, opportunities may be offered up to those who are physically present. Impromptu meetings or informal chats will happen in the office, and those at home may be left out of crucial conversations.

What about the women who do choose to return to the office full time? We already face a gender imbalance in most offices within the maritime industry. If this is further increased by a higher volume of women working from home, does this run the risk of alienating those who choose to return? Research tells us that gender stereotypes flourish in workplaces where the gender gap is more noticeable.

Equal policies may not be fair

One solution might be to remove the element of choice from the hybrid model. If all choice is removed, and all employees must follow the same schedule, then we remove the inequity that the system might otherwise create. In practice, this is not such an easy solution. There are many individual reasons why working from home is not suitable for certain employees. These can include limited space, housemates, difficult home circumstances etc.

Ardmore’s approach

At Ardmore, we took a proactive approach to driving an initial consultation process where we spoke to each of our employees individually about their thoughts on flexible working both during the pandemic and beyond. This is now being followed by a 6-month trial of  hybrid working arrangements. Open communication both during and after the trial period will be key to ensuring all employees feel included, consulted and that all voices and opinions are heard. It is unlikely there will be a ‘one-solution-fixes-all’ approach, but it is essential we consider this challenge from all angles.

What is important is that we keep having these conversations, that we keep assessing how things are going, and that we remain flexible and open to course corrections as we go. We have a lot to learn, and we are at the beginning of a long journey.

For more information on Women in Shipping 2021, please visit https://informaconnect.com/women-in-shipping-summit/speakers/aideen-odriscoll/