JANET STREET-PORTER: Why no ambitious woman should work from home

From next week, we are no longer under official orders to work from home (WFH). It will be up to individual businesses, even employees, to decide for themselves whether or not to come back to the office.

So what’s the betting more women than men decide not to? That instead of the kitchen sink, women will stay tied to the kitchen table?

Sold to us as flexible working, with all the benefits, we’re told, of a better work-life balance, the idea of staying at home for all or part of the week seems especially attractive to women who still take the lion’s share of responsibility for family life and domestic drudgery.

But I say: don’t fall for it.

It’s bad enough after maternity leave. Women already struggle to resume their position in the pecking order and carry on with their careers after a year out with a newborn.

Janet Street-Porter (pictured) reveals why flexible working is a career-tastrophe for women saying, although it sounds like a mum-friendly solution, to get ahead, you have to be visible

Janet Street-Porter (pictured) reveals why flexible working is a career-tastrophe for women saying, although it sounds like a mum-friendly solution, to get ahead, you have to be visible

Janet Street-Porter (pictured) reveals why flexible working is a career-tastrophe for women saying, although it sounds like a mum-friendly solution, to get ahead, you have to be visible

If they choose to WFH after July 19, the impact will be the same. It will be men who decide to return to work first and men whose careers will advance, at a huge cost to female equality.

My generation fought so hard to get a level playing field in the workplace. I started in newsprint journalism on the Daily Mail in 1969, back when newsrooms were completely dominated by men.

Gradually, women became war correspondents, news editors and, finally, editors and managing directors. It took me until 1999 to get up to that level. And the truth is, you just can’t achieve it by working from home.

On the contrary, I put in extraordinarily long days in the office to further my career. There was no other way.

Now, there’s a danger that opting for the familiar and cosy — WFH — will erode all those gains my generation battled for.

Are we going to throw everything away by choosing to hide ourselves away again at home?

From the start of my career as a television producer back in the 1980s, to editing a newspaper, I have always promoted women and pushed them to achieve their ambitions. When key executives wanted to have babies, that didn’t stand in their way, they always came back to work.

But many found that too long a gap out of the office made it harder to claw their way back into what can be a very male-dominated environment.

It’s revealing that few men take paternity leave. Those who do often cut it short. They’ve worked out that to get ahead, you have to be visible.

At first glance, working from home seems so female-friendly. Countless studies have shown that women are excellent at multi-tasking, so the pandemic presented a chance to give up the most unproductive part of our day — travelling to and from the office — and replaced it with a walk of a few feet from kitchen to computer to log on. We didn’t need to move an inch further to attend meetings and communicate with colleagues.

WFH limits your chance of promotion, and with men in the office, their careers will advance at a huge cost to female equality (file image of commuters on London Bridge)

WFH limits your chance of promotion, and with men in the office, their careers will advance at a huge cost to female equality (file image of commuters on London Bridge)

WFH limits your chance of promotion, and with men in the office, their careers will advance at a huge cost to female equality (file image of commuters on London Bridge)

But this dream scenario has a downside. The past 15 months have proved that WFH means most women are working harder than ever. They have set a dangerous precedent by combining housework, childminding, home schooling and office work, juggling myriad tasks.

Unless they are paid enough to afford childcare and home help, they will simply not be able to achieve their goals at work.

Most important of all, WFH limits your chance of promotion, which is the last thing we need. While the gender pay gap still yawns — at 15.5 per cent in 2020 — women need fewer obstacles to career advancement, not more.

Work isn’t just about delivering output to order. The benefits (for women) of going into an office are not immediately obvious, but look at the most successful people in any workplace. They are good at networking, they probably don’t work any harder or better than anyone else, their results are likely the same, but they will be good at making sure the managers and the boss notice what they’ve done.

My biggest experience of this was at the BBC, where I was often the only woman in management meetings. Men used to drone on, making sure they got their points across. Women are naturally more self-effacing. I had to develop a thick skin and employ more aggressive tactics to get my ideas and my programmes made.

Zoom doesn’t work for those who want to get ahead. You can’t network on Zoom and, whether we like it or not, that’s a key part of climbing the ladder. So is sheer visibility, especially at the start of a career, when you should be volunteering for extra tasks, always offering to do that little bit more than some of your fellow workers. I definitely focused on that.

Ambitious workers curry favour with those who hold the power to raise them up. They spend time being everyone’s best friend, networking to place them in pole position when it’s promotion time. Bosses always remember the person they saw the most.

You don’t get feedback on Zoom either, that informal, constructive input from colleagues, shared across a desk or while waiting for the lift, which helps you hone skills and learn the tricks of a trade. Even biting criticism can be useful sometimes.

None of it exists when you only see each other on a bland screen with six others listening in.

WFH often means working in totally unsuitable surroundings, sharing wifi bandwidth with teenagers or kitchen table space with flatmates while the washing machine rumbles on in the background. You end up either isolated and doubting your abilities, or frustrated by the countless demands of running a home as well as trying to focus on work.

WFH often means working in totally unsuitable surroundings, being frustrated by the countless demands of running a home as well as trying to focus on work (file image)

WFH often means working in totally unsuitable surroundings, being frustrated by the countless demands of running a home as well as trying to focus on work (file image)

WFH often means working in totally unsuitable surroundings, being frustrated by the countless demands of running a home as well as trying to focus on work (file image)

Creativity inevitably suffers, too. Most of the best ideas I’ve had as a television executive charged with devising new formats and creating game-changing programmes for Channel 4 and at the BBC came out of ad hoc, unscheduled conversations with the talented people in my team.

They were generally younger than me but, what they lacked in experience, they made up for by offering a different perspective.

When I edited a national newspaper, the same was true. The daily conference lasted about 30 minutes, but it was the most valuable part of the day. I can’t see how you can reproduce the same inspiring, productive atmosphere online.

Ideas and stories developed out of conversations, and I could pick up a random thought or aside and run with it, developing it further in smaller groups.

People definitely have more confidence to suggest new ideas in a real-life group. For me, nothing replaces the buzz of a physical newsroom or editing suite.

Yes, I know feminists nowadays demand that we stop trying to force women into workplaces designed for their fathers’ generation. The old nine-to-five, bum-on-office-chair template no longer works for the modern workforce, they say.

And yet Covid has proved that the alternative doesn’t work either. Yet again women end up doing twice the labour — domestic and paid — and wreck their chances of promotion, too.

Far from being fairer, the post-pandemic world of work threatens to turn the clock back on all women have achieved.

Nine out of ten people say WFH is tempting. But if you have ambitions for a decent career, don’t do it. 

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