Dean's letter: For better or worse – flexibility and working women

This week, Professor Paul Kofman reflects on the challenges and opportunities of working from home, and how COVID-19 might affect women's working lives.

Dear Students,

Are both of your parents working from home? And if they live and work in the same home, which one has the best home office set up, who is your go-to if you need help and how did this get decided?

Despite the gender pay gap narrowing, women still do the majority of chores and invisible work around the house. So today I want to reflect on this fact and take a management perspective on women’s working lives.

It could well be one of the few benefits of COVID-19 to make this work by women visible and result in a more equitable divide of household labour. However and unfortunately, many women will have experienced trying to balance work and home even more challenging with home schooling or caring for relatives factored in. Even with some school year cohorts returning to campus this week, flexibility is still required by parents who need to pick up and drop off at new staggered times. Flexibility that I hope remains an integral part of Australian workplaces emerging from COVID-19.

Dr Erica Coslor from our Department of Management and Marketing wrote a recent article on flexible work. For people used to working in an office environment, the government imposed isolation measures have made working from home a necessity rather than a ‘nice to have’. However, Erica points out that ‘good flexibility’- staying home to concentrate on a project for a number of days, for example - is very different to the current situation of working from home for months. For many, there is also the distraction and sometimes stress of children to deal with. On the positive side, the experience suggests that productivity is equally achievable with flexible work practices. Managers need to consider less the hours put in at the office and focus more on deliverables being met.

Working women have long called for more flexible work arrangements. As Australia slowly transitions back to office life, will this continue? Professor Susan Ainsworth, also from our Department of Management and Marketing, is not convinced. In an interview with Susan on the Faculty’s Women are the Business podcast, she notes that flexibility is good but it also requires a strong level of trust between managers and employees, being compassionate with demands beyond work and creating work life balance. This goes for all jobs and not just office roles. COVID-19 has had a stark negative impact on retail and tourism, which disproportionately favour the employment of women. While unemployed or underemployed with the extra stress of additional care responsibilities for those with children, many women will not be able to effectively seek new work or be able to easily retrain.

To make workplaces work well for all employees, Susan argues that companies need to institutionalise their commitments to workplace flexibility and not treat it as something expendable while focussing on the bottom line in the short term. Susan points out that under stress, businesses typically revert back to predictable behaviour and that progress on gender equality, or any area for that matter, is not always linear. It is often two steps forward and one step back in workplaces as much as at home.

I know many of you are working on completing final assignments before exam preparation over SWOT Vac next week. I wish you all the very best. Make sure you do take some social distance study breaks, especially out in the Melbourne Autumn sunshine or if overseas, the lovely Spring weather of the Northern Hemisphere.

Stay well and healthy,


Paul K