As City of London Rolls Back Flexible Working, It’s Losing Women

UK lawmakers hear how clamping down on hybrid work is hampering gender equality 

(Bloomberg) — The rollback of flexible working practices is hurting efforts to boost gender equality in the City of London, parliamentarians heard on Tuesday. 

When the outbreak of Covid-19 forced firms to adapt to working from home, the change benefitted working parents in particular, according to Fiona Mackenzie, chief executive officer of The Other Half, a UK-based think tank. But three years on, corporate attitudes are now changing, she told  the Treasury Select Committee, which is currently investigating sexism in London’s financial services sector.

Lots of company bosses are “quite keen to switch it off and particularly in founder-led firms, maybe US-based firms, and certainly in the investment industry, lots of it is being dialed back,” said Mackenzie. “There are women all over the City who are now working their notice, who have left jobs where they were high-calibre performers, because hybrid working enabled them to stick in those roles.”

Read more: Goldin’s Nobel Shows the Power of Flexible Work for Women

Lawmakers are looking into the state of gender equality in the City in the wake of numerous scandals surrounding the industry, such as allegations of harassment against hedge fund giant Crispin Odey and the Confederation of British Industry, the country’s largest business lobby group. Women in the industry also face a gender pay gap of 26%, and are sparsely represented across the top ranks of firms, with both measures moving at a glacial pace. 

The inquiry’s evidence “suggests that really the dial has barely moved since 2018,” the year of the #MeToo movement, said Harriett Baldwin, who chairs the committee. 

That has been in part due to resistance to change a sector where many companies still retain an ‘Old Boys’ Club’ culture. Men dominate in terms of numbers and some companies still have a lack of transparency around pay, bonuses and career progression, the lawmakers heard. 

Flexible working practices can be one key to guarding against the “motherhood penalty,” where career opportunities for women stall once they have children. But across the sector, companies are beginning to crack down on such policies, with Lloyds Banking Group Plc, HSBC Holdings Plc and the UK employees of Citigroup Inc. told to spend more time in the office. Citigroup has also started monitoring office attendance after CEO Jane Fraser warned employees about being hauled back to the office if their productivity flagged. 

Companies sharply clamping down on flexible working are now losing women, Mackenzie said. “And there are leaders who are tearing their hair out, because they know they are losing great people because of these decisions to just switch off hybrid working unthinkingly.”

In written evidence, The Other Half said finance workers were calling for their firms to make flexible working patterns and specifically part-time roles more workable. “Although this may seem both obvious and easily within reach, it requires greater organisational commitment than hiring women into part-time roles and leaving them to succeed or fail,” it said. 

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