Lorraine Courtney: 'Nine-to-five is a tired format – until mums have flexibility, the salary gap will remain'

Equal opportunities legislation still hasn’t delivered equality in Irish workplaces. Why? Well, there’s one issue that comes up time and again – becoming a mother.

It’s 2020 but being a ‘working mother’ is the dilemma of the modern woman while being a ‘working father’ is not even a thing that people say with a straight face. 

The Government launched a consultation recently seeking the public’s views on flexible working – it’s open until January 31. It is hoping to develop a new policy that works for workers and for businesses.

Right now, working mothers have, broadly speaking, two choices. You can dedicate yourself fully to your job – you’ll have to neglect your children somewhat. Or you can work part-time, be underpaid, undervalued and never, ever climb the ladder.

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Having a flexible working arrangement is still considered to be a kind of flashy job perk, up there with expenses-paid happy hours, office pets and ping pong tables. It’s some tool the very lucky few are handed, as they crack the “work-life balance” that has increasingly disappeared as our Slack channel follows us home with its constant updates in the evening, and on our week-long package holiday to Greece.

Flexibility is the only thing that will finally close the awful wage gap, with the World Economic Forum reporting in 2018 that, overall, women will only earn as much as men in 202 years.

In traditional workplaces when bums on chairs are the visual representatives of a job done well, and not the actual work itself, working mothers are always put at a disadvantage when the boss starts thinking about promotions and pay rises.

Add to the pay gap the challenge of finding childcare that is both affordable and available at the hours needed, to make it financially viable to work, and you can start to see why career prospects for working mothers are hampered.

The average cost of full-time childcare in Ireland is €184 a week, up 3.4pc on last year, according to figures released last September. The highest full-time fees were recorded in Dublin (Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown), at €251 per week.

It isn’t surprising that half of mothers with children aged one and older think the State does not support motherhood, according to a new survey. The study, from parenting forum everymum, shows there is a clear desire for more societal support for motherhood – 69pc believe a more flexible work culture would support mothers. Over two-thirds agree that more access to affordable childcare would be of benefit to them. Costly childcare is a never-ending vicious cycle that is killing the careers of thousands of mothers across the country.

However, there is no Irish law in place that allows all employees to apply for flexible working arrangements, unlike in the UK. Instead, here in Ireland, flexible working hours – whether part-time, working remotely, job-sharing or ‘irregular’ hours – are at the discretion of the employer.

What if we could choose when and where we work, and for how long; if we could fit our careers around our lives, rather than trying to carve slivers of time for ourselves from days dominated by our jobs? Wouldn’t it transform the way we work and live?

Most of us want this. A survey last year by flexible recruitment agency Employflex found that four out of five people believe that flexible work should be a legal right for everyone in the workplace. Two-thirds of people surveyed said that flexibility is the most important thing for them when looking for a job, ahead of salary (8pc) and location (13pc).

Just slightly over half of those surveyed said they work in a flexible workplace, while two in five don’t know if their company even has a flexible work policy. Nine out of 10 people said they would leave their current job if they were offered flexibility in another role.

Until women are able to continue with their chosen career path alongside having a family, the gender pay gap will remain intact.

It is simply facts of biology that women need to reproduce for our human race to continue, yet we are still being paid less for doing that.

It is also fact that women cannot have children without changing their working pattern at some point, and if we do not have the opportunity to work flexibly -whether that’s part-time, a job-share or from home – we will continue to be forced out of higher-paid roles.

Whether doing your job from home, rather than the office, or being able to have a little more control over your working hours, research has shown that flexible working can make employees more productive and happier.

Studies have found that letting people work from home actually does improve productivity.

I think that if you do a good job and work hard, you’ve earned the right to control your own time and location at work.

A promotion shouldn’t depend on sitting in an open-plan office for the rigid 9-5 slog, a tired Monday to Friday model, and inflexible bosses who make you feel like you owe them for any time you’re not spent chained to your desk.

Whether the Government can help working mothers – and let us lean sideways sometimes – remains to be seen.

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