What does the future of flexible work really mean for women?

After an upheaval in working arrangements caused by the pandemic, Ingrid Seim and Angela Smiddy ponder on what this will mean in the years ahead
What does the future of flexible work really mean for women?

9 out of 10 working mothers had no time for self-care, according to the SUSTAIN research. Picture: Stock

OUR working arrangements and patterns have changed dramatically over the past two years. We have adapted to each ‘new normal’ as it has presented.

Flexibility and hybrid working are clearly here to stay, and the impact on our work-life balance and the opportunity to be more present in all aspects of our lives is acknowledged and appreciated by most.

We are encouraged to bring our whole selves to work at an unprecedented level.

For many women, who for years have been fighting for better ways to blend careers and family life, it might seem like they’re finally on the path to being given what they need.

So, looking to 2022 and beyond, what does this more flexible future of work mean for women, and specifically how does it impact on female talent retention and progression?

With ambitious gender equality targets in place in many organisations, it is a question we should take some time to reflect on.

As part of our SUSTAIN Female Leadership programme, we surveyed women across multiple industries and at varying seniority levels about their thoughts and experiences of work, careers, leadership and the pandemic. On the surface, the results present a positive picture of women and their careers, with a large percentage of participants reporting confidence in their own abilities and in their leadership skills.

Most felt their work was aligned with their values and more than half were energised by it.

There was positive news also for organisations, with participants complimentary about the access they have to organisational supports such as coaching and mentoring, as well as flexible working arrangements.

Yet, despite the positivity in many aspects of leadership, some of which goes against the traditional narrative in terms of what’s holding women back, it is clear that work-life balance, or rather the lack of, remains a key issue in terms of women’s career progression and overall wellbeing.

While pandemic-induced living and remote working made some household logistics easier to manage, it has also taken its toll as many struggle to stay on top of both work and family life alongside the additional stressors the past two years have brought.

With both work and homelife seeping into all available hours of the day, our capacity to set and maintain personal and professional boundaries is a key challenge. For many, the much sought-after flexibility they have gained has not been the panacea for the work-life balance issues one might have expected.

Eight out of 10 women reported that there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done – and felt guilty about everything that didn’t.

Seven out of 10 worried about their workload, only a third managed to find time for career planning, and less than four out of 10 were happy with the level to which they made use of the organisational supports available to them.

More than half didn’t have enough time for self-care, a figure that rose to an alarming, if perhaps not unexpected, 9 out of 10 for working mothers.

These experiences have an impact. With most of their energy expended on trying to stay on top of the ever-changing demands of work and life, career advancement became less of a priority for many women. In fact, many were ruling it out altogether, such was the current level of overwhelm they were experiencing. With over 70% worrying about their existing workload, many simply did not see how they could take on any more.

Where then does this leave the future prospects for women in terms of striking the right balance between a fulfilling career and maintaining some sort of work-life balance, and what does this mean for organisations?

Many companies we engage with are struggling to see what else they can do to support the work-life balance challenges that are still presenting, despite their best efforts.

But flexibility in isolation will not resolve the issues of overwhelm and its impact on female career progression and fulfilment.

Boundaries, self-awareness, self-management, and most importantly space to reflect and contemplate and initiate action are all needed to create a sustainable foundation to make it all work.

When we work with individual women leaders and with organisations, that is what we focus on. Because without an understanding of how individual ways of working and living impact the overall outcome, we will never get to where we need to be.

This can be challenging work. These individual patterns and ways of working are often value based, and it can be hard to change something that is important to us - like being available to others, always delivering projects ahead of time, or making sure our children eat home-cooked meals. But unless we challenge some of our assumptions around how well our values and accompanying actions are serving us, we may never be able to step above the daily churn.

There are structural issues at play here as well, of course. There are questions to be asked around the lack of adequate and affordable childcare provision, around the value we put on women’s contributions, around organisational succession planning and around the solutions we as a society put in place and who they favour. This is not another issue for women to carry on their shoulders.

But women’s own personal and individual understanding of where they are at, how they feel about themselves, the way they prioritise, the decisions they make, matters too. And it is an important place to start.


Ingrid Seim and Angela Smiddy are leadership consultants specialising in women’s career development and work-life balance. Through their SUSTAIN Female Leadership programmes, they provide a series of solutions for organisations eager to support their female leaders in a way that makes a difference.

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