Women and remote working

]If you are a working parent then you’ll know that something has to give. If you are the working parent who is responsible for the majority of childcare then you’ll be aware of how complicated life can become. Despite legislation and a catalogue of relevant historical events this role still usually falls at the feet of women.

Working mums by Janet McKnight

Remote working mums

I touched on issues related to parenting and flexible working relatively recently in my post on The Balance of Power. In the post I quoted Lucy Mangan who recently wrote that while researching for a radio 4 programme she found that “most of the women I met spoke of putting in more hours than they were paid for because they felt so guilty and grateful to be allowed a semi-bespoke work life.

It’s clear that remote working is not a panacea for women in the workplace. It is however an option that has enabled many to have some sort of work life balance.

A former colleague of mine (Emma Tonkin) kindly pointed out this excellent write-up: A Woman’s Place by Jon Norris of the history of FI, a “groundbreaking IT firm that laid the foundations for outsourced development and women’s rights in the workplace“.

Norris’ post tells how women programmers often found it difficult to return to work after the birth of their children. In the 1960s Stephanie Shirley’s frustration at her situation motivated her to set up a company that supported women through this transitional time. She also began to refer to herself as Steve Shirley in correspondence to avoid sexist dealings.

Shirley’s model accepted that most new mothers would not be able to work regular hours, so it operated a skeleton full-time staff, and relied on freelancers and part-timers to make up the bulk of the workforce. Programmers — once they’d proven themselves, at least — were put on “the list”: the company’s roster of active workers. When a development contract arrived, it was handed to a project manager like Lynda who was responsible for staffing up and delivering.

Incredibly insightful, Shirley’s organization made sure that they got the best out of their employees through flexible and supportive working structures.

Once they were on “the list” FI’s freelancers could pick and choose their workload. If they performed well or impressed a particular project manager, they could expect to be asked to work more often; although refusing a project in no way hurt their chances of future work. This flexibility enabled new and expectant mothers to keep their programming skills sharp and avoid the career gap that be could be the kiss of death for many coders.

For the company gender eventually became invisible.

By the time FI had become a noticeable force on the IT landscape, the two problems that had prevented Shirley from pursuing her data processing career had been solved. Gender and parenthood were no longer an issue as they had become invisible to FI’s clientele, and flexible working meant women no longer had to put their career on hold for years at a time.

Norris’ post tells how the company changed it’s focus over the years and in 2007, after several rebrands, it was sold with a turnover nearing £400m to Steria.

He concludes by mussing on the impact and legacy of Steve Shirley’s actions.

There is no doubt that Steve Shirley and FI broke new ground. Now, almost 50 years after the birth of an all-female technology company with radically modern working practices, it seems remarkable that the same industry is still fumbling with the issue of gender equality.

Issues of gender equality are complex and unlikely to be solved in my life-time. Age and experience has made me cynical feminist (or is this third-wave feminism?) and I now take the pragmatic approach that equality regarding options is what we need rather than equality. Remote working can offer options that many other work set ups do not. So again, for that reason alone it is a much needed way of working.