Michelle Last: The long-term career risks for mothers working from home

Employers need to be realistic about the effects of increased working from home for working mothers in order to maintain and improve on equality gains achieved pre-Covid-19 (Coronavirus).

Government guidance that people should work from home over the last year has enabled many families to reduce their reliance on costly childcare and spend more quality time with their families.

Now that UK government guidance is set to change again on 21 June and employers are talking to staff about returning to the workplace, some employers are noticing a trend of more working mothers wanting to continue working from home indefinitely. On the other hand, many working fathers are seemingly keen to return to the workplace as soon as it is allowed. While this is not the case for every employer or individual, it is a concerning dynamic which could result in working mothers finding it harder than ever to be promoted and equally remunerated.

Ideally, employees should be judged by the quality of their work and not their presence. However, for some employers, the best opportunities are perhaps most likely to be given to those who appear to have more impact and commitment by being in the office.

It is a known fact that women are more likely be treated detrimentally during pregnancy and maternity. The Equality and Human Rights Commission reported in 2016 that 77% of working mothers had encountered negative or discriminatory treatment at work and that 54,000 women a year are pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity leave. The effects of working from home may be felt for longer, as it is not confined to the period when children are young.

Employees who have worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks have the legal right to apply for flexible working. However, gender disparities may arise due to working mothers working remotely. As such, employers should not consider flexible working requests as the end of the conversation but only the beginning.

Instead, employers aware of the trend of working mothers wishing to work remotely can work with line managers to ensure working mothers have access to equal work opportunities and put in place procedures to ensure working mothers maintain regular contact with the team. Ideally this will involve regular face to face contact.

There is also an array of flexible working policies that may mean that work does not need to be either fully remote or fully within the office. These options include term-time working, condensed hours and job-sharing arrangements. With the variety of these options available, it is hoped that both employee and employer can come to a mutually beneficial agreement that enables working mothers to maintain a meaningful presence in the workplace.

Michelle Last is a partner at law firm Keystone Law