Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Could more flexible working make it easier for women to have a career and a family?

Header image for article

Could more flexible working make it easier for women to have a career and a family?

Flexible working schemes have the potential to improve workplace equality in the living-with-COVID era. But employers must get the implementation right.

Last week, a high-paying law firm, Stephenson Harwood, announced it will give employees the option to work from home full time – for a 20% pay cut.

This is one of the many ways large businesses are responding to the demand for more flexible working 'post'-COVID. So far, there has been a huge variation in approach. Airbnb has told staff they can work anywhere they choose with no effect on pay. Jacob Rees-Mogg meanwhile, has left polite notes on empty desks telling staff to get back in the office.

The potential for more flexible work offers a glimpse of the mountain summit for women in their journey to equality at work and at home. But the choices employers make now will affect the steepness of the climb.

If implemented well, flexible working policies could bring us to a new age in which caregiving is shared more equally between couples, and women can more easily have a career as well as a family. If implemented badly, employers could maintain or worsen current inequalities, which make it easier for men to pursue their chosen career, earn more and retire on larger pensions.

The CAGE Research Centre recently hosted Claudia Goldin for a special lecture on her book Career and Family: Then and Now. Her overview of the last century of women and work is largely positive. Women have gone from having to choose between work and family to being able to have both. But, as she points out, working is not the same as having a career.

Careers – high-paying, high-skilled jobs (think lawyers, college professors and investment bankers) – are often greedy for workers’ time. Their high salaries are compensation for being at the company’s beck and call.

Now, as more women than men graduate from university with top degrees, these high paying careers are fully accessible to young women. But, Goldin explains, when couples decide to have a family, caregiving makes it difficult for both partners to keep time-demanding roles. Often, one partner selects a flexible, less demanding position that leaves time for childcare. Often, that partner is the woman.

Goldin’s study focuses on US data, but there is a similar pattern in the UK. ONS statistics show that the gender pay gap for full-time workers aged under 40 is low (3% or below) while the gap for those aged over 40 is much higher (around 12%).

While there is evidence that more women are taking up high-paid management roles, the gender pay gap is largest for higher earners (16%). There are also more women than men in part-time work, which is often paid less per hour.

Women with families can work, but can’t always achieve their full potential in work. Goldin advises that the pay gap is a symptom not a cause. The true problem is that equity at home – the equal sharing of childcare responsibilities – comes at too high a cost. Time-demanding roles pay better, so families would be worse off if both partners took flexible work. Right now, it is predominantly women who put their careers on hold.

The problem has long-run consequences. Part-time work and poorer earnings affect retirement wealth. Decisions made about caregiving when children are small can make women worse off for life.

One solution is to offer more flexible positions in high-paid roles. For many companies who have had to embrace remote working through the pandemic, this is now a possibility.

But it’s important that flexible working doesn’t become ‘a female enclave’, as Goldin puts it. Flexible working needs to be offered in such a way that encourages both men and women to take it. This is where firms like Stephenson Harwood may have missed the mark.

Their scheme for full-time remote work seems rational on paper. A 20% salary cut reflects the saved costs of commuting. Whether the pay cut leaves employees better or worse off will vary depending on an individual’s commuting costs. But, as primary caregivers, it is women who are most likely to accept a pay cut for the promise of a shorter commute, even if it leaves them worse off financially.

The scheme then, is a double-edged sword. The chance to work entirely from home could allow women who would otherwise leave the industry because of caregiving responsibilities to continue their careers. But the differentiation in salary could create new pay inequalities between women and men.

Flexible working is only an equaliser if both men and women have the same incentives to do it. Airbnb’s promise of equal pay wherever you work certainly offers that. The four-day working week trial could also encourage parents to share caregiving more equally. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s approach to remote working on the other hand, could take female civil servants several steps back down the mountain path.

Women’s equality in the workplace and at home has come far. Flexible working gives hope that we can go further. But true equality won’t happen until society makes another leap, to raise the value of caregiving in society and encourage men and women to participate equally.

Stephanie Seavers, Communications Manager, CAGE


Claudia Goldin presented the Crafts Lecture on 5 May 2022. View the recording here.