Serial entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow has warned that working from home is “a disaster waiting to happen for feminism”. She is “extremely worried” that women will become less visible in business because she sees more men than women choosing to work in the office.
Wosskow, who has founded and exited three businesses - PR agency Mantra, Love Home Swap and the women’s members’ club AllBright - was speaking at a panel session at last week’s inaugural Women In Work Summit in London.
She has seen a drop in the number of women in the entrepreneurial space since the pandemic. That’s a problem when women already find it much harder to get funding from investors (in 2016, only 2.7% of capital in the UK went to female entrepreneurs).
“While a founder is judged by many different things, they need to be able to raise capital…It’s extremely hard to raise capital and influence outcomes on Zoom,” she said.
“I'm extremely worried that we lose our place in the room, that we lose our visibility and we lose being part of the conversation that becomes ever more male-dominated,” she added.
While she said flexibility was important - noting that as a single parent to two children, she wanted to be able to go to sports days, important events and “dentist appointments” - she argued there is a difference between having flexibility and institutionalising work from home.
A drag on productivity?
She also slated working from home as a drag on productivity. “We are near the bottom of every productivity table, so it’s not helping UK plc for working from home to be the norm,” she said.
In response, researcher and former Management Today columnist Christine Armstrong, argued that working from home was not the problem. She referenced a 2016 study that asked workers to self-report what they did during their working day. On an average day, workers said they spent 25 mins looking for a new job, 1 hour reading the news and only worked for just less than 3 hours.
“Covid has given us the most incredible opportunity to reset work, which was designed for the breadwinner model where Daddy was working and Mummy was at home with the tiger, the bath and the buns,” she said, referring to the 1960s children’s book The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
A big factor for this change, she said, was that many of our work days - particularly knowledge workers - had “skyrocketed” in length during the past 15 years, in part due to technology that allows people to work from anywhere. “When I got my Blackberry, it was the most exciting day of my life, until I realised it just meant I could work on my way to work, on my way home, at the weekends and on holiday.”
Despite all the work people did “round the edges”, she criticised bosses for now saying that all this work wasn’t real work - that it doesn’t count unless you are in the office. She said companies needed to be aware that their staff were rushing home from work to “clean the bathroom and dash around Sainsbury’s local to find something somebody’s going to eat today.” People have busy lives, which is why it’s attractive to save two hours from the commute, do a good job at home and then only go in two or three days a week.
Slide back to the 60s
Armstrong said: “There is a new generation of men who want to do things differently. That should be celebrated and we need to enable them to do it. We need to give opportunities for men to do more caring, take on more of the mental load. What we can’t allow is for the men to do it the way they always did it and slide back to the 60s.”
“But that’s what’s happening,” countered Wosskow. She said she was fine with a more fluid approach to work if there were “gender based contracts” that said if women were working from home, then men had to as well. “That isn’t what’s happening. We’re doing it and they’re not,” she said.
Another thing that was “keeping her awake at night” was the fact that London workers might lose their London weighting because they are working from home. “I’m on the side of women and money. We know about the gender pay gap and the gender savings gap. What really concerns me is women don’t have access to long term capital in the same way as men and working from home is starting to have an impact on us. That is frightening.”
But Armstrong argued it was possible for people to mitigate any impact of working from home by being more intentional about how they used their time on their office days. She said workers could go to meetings, think about their networks and meet former colleagues for lunch. “You can consciously think about how to spend your time,” she said.
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Picture by Hayley Bray Photography/Women In Work Summit