Female finance: the future is flexible

How will you mark International Women’s Day on Monday?

Monday March 8 is already a significant date for millions of working parents in England, as it’s when children return to the classroom after months of home schooling.

Obviously, this has affected working fathers as well as working mothers. But Gina Miller, the businesswoman and anti-Brexit campaigner, is concerned about the disproportionate impact on women’s careers and earnings prospects.

Various studies have suggested that women have been more likely to lose jobs, quit work and bear the brunt of the childcare during lockdown. But Miller believes women working from home lose out in other ways.

“Professional women are saying they’re not being included in Zoom calls, or pitches for things. And they’re being given excuses, ‘oh, well, we know you’re busy at home with the children’,” she told me on a special International Women’s Day edition of the Money Clinic podcast.

“What will that mean for how you judge bonuses? How would you judge contributing to fee income? There are lots of questions that come from this, which I think are incredibly worrying.”

FT podcast: How can I get started as an investor?

Claer Barrett talks to campaigner Gina Miller about her journey in personal finance. Download here

In a poll of more than 1,000 UK women conducted for International Women’s Day by Fidelity, one in four said they had experienced a drop in income over the past 12 months — the average shortfall was £463 per month.

Nearly one-third of those polled said they were saving less; nearly one in five were investing less and one in eight had cut their pension contributions.

“All of this is unwinding progress on the gender pay gap and associated gender pension gap, and could negatively impact women’s finances in the long term,” says Maike Currie, investment director at Fidelity.

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Of course, not all women have been negatively affected — one in five said their ability to save and invest had increased during the pandemic, largely due to “forced savings” under lockdown (happily, I fall into this group myself).

Yet more than half of women surveyed by the platform said they felt their career progression had been negatively affected by the events of the past year.

As children return to school, thoughts are turning to when home workers will return to the office — and I am hopeful that future changes to how we work and earn money will benefit both women and men.

The pandemic has normalised remote working, changing the mindset of many employers and managers who may have previously been sceptical.

Take the Financial Times. Covering the Budget is one of the busiest and buzziest days in the office, with every reporter, editor and sub working at breakneck pace to produce pages of extra coverage and financial analysis. This year, we did it almost entirely from home with just a handful of staff in the office. A year ago, I would not have believed this was possible.

Certainly, it was very odd reporting on all the goings on from my home office in a converted cupboard in east London. In more normal working weeks, whilst I miss the camaraderie and serendipity of bumping into different colleagues, with no children at home to distract me I am definitely more productive (not to mention fitter).

Currie believes “there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle” if men and women want to continue to work more flexibly in future. “People are used to more forgiving, flexible hours and shorter commutes,” she says, predicting that companies that embrace these possibilities will be the ones people will want to work for.

Of course, not everyone can work from home, but there are numerous financial benefits for those able to embrace “hybrid working”.

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Speaking to friends and colleagues this week, the thing we’ve been missing the least about work is the commute. London house prices mean families are moving further out of the capital to be able to afford a decent-sized home, and shuttling back and forwards to the office costs them time and money. Plans for flexible season tickets will be a game-changer.

Lots of firms are currently asking staff whether they want to continue working from home for a fixed number of days a week. Judging by what my friends say, women are especially keen to do this as it makes it so much easier to manage the logistics of family life.

Yet returning to Gina Miller’s concerns, does this put women at risk of being out of sight, out of mind when it comes to how they are valued and rewarded in the workplace?

Part of the answer is how men might embrace flexible working.

A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies posited that the “substantial shock” of the pandemic “could reshape how families divide paid work and unpaid household responsibilities” far into the future.

While not discounting the risk of a long-term hit to women’s earnings power, the study also found that the “large increase in fathers’ involvement in childcare might have long-lasting impacts on how couples share childcare responsibilities”.

The theme of International Women’s Day this year is “choose to challenge” and I’m hoping we can all embrace this spirit in our future working lives.

I’m also hopeful that greater flexibility could enable more women to escape what I’ve previously called the part-time penalty.

To get the work-life balance they need, many women opt to work part-time (40 per cent of women, compared with 13 per cent of men). For couples where women are the lower earner, this could make more financial sense, but it cuts women’s earnings power and associated pension savings even further. Meanwhile, huge leaps in technology mean there’s an expectation that we’re always contactable, putting in extra unpaid hours.

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Could hybrid working make it possible for more women to return to a full-time job and pay packet?

I recently persuaded one of my closest friends to take a shot at promotion to a full-time role. The lockdown experience meant that she was confident she could manage the extra workload, but feared she wouldn’t be good enough to make the grade.

In normal times, helping her dismiss all thoughts of self-doubt would have taken place over a chilled bottle of Albariño instead of over Zoom, where I shared Gina Miller’s thoughts on “imposter syndrome”.

“We can’t pretend to be somebody or something we’re not, but we can learn to be stronger,” she told me on the podcast.

Whether you’re negotiating a promotion, a change to working arrangements or arguing for a pay rise, she says: “One of the ways I’ve done it is by writing down why I’m asking what I’m asking, and justifying to myself before I even go in the room. If you sell it to yourself, then you feel confident going in asking for it.”

Guess what? My friend just heard that she got the promotion. She’ll definitely be buying the wine when I next get to see her and celebrate — and here’s hoping the year ahead brings positive changes for us all.

Claer Barrett is the FT’s consumer editor, and a financial commentator on Eddie Mair’s LBC drive-time show, on weekdays between 4-7pm: claer.barrett@ft.com; Twitter @Claerb; Instagram @Claerb



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