Reopening UK offices risks excluding women and minorities, says business chief

The government’s plan to push people back into the office risks a return to “white middle-aged males” making important decisions in the office, while women and people from ethnic minorities are excluded at home, according to one of the UK’s most senior business leaders.

In an interview with the Guardian, Chartered Management Institute (CMI) chief executive, Ann Francke, warned that without careful oversight “blended working” could result in a two-tier system where women without sufficient childcare to return to the office are left out of key decisions.

Recent polling by the TUC revealed that two in five mothers do not have the childcare they need to return to the office as some nurseries, childminders and wraparound care remains unavailable, while research shows women are more likely to do the extra childcare.

“The risk is when we go back into the office, the people that go back will be the senior leaders. And we know that those senior leaders are largely white men,” said Francke. “That will reinforce the kind of exclusionary, lack of diverse culture at the top of organisations. I think that would be a very dangerous step backwards.”

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Francke also put herself firmly at odds with government messaging about the safety of returning to the office, stating: “I don’t think it is the responsibility of companies to save the local sandwich shop […] The bottom line is, ultimately those businesses that are really affected in the long term will have to adapt. They simply have to adapt.”

Before going back to work, people had to feel safe, she added. “And they don’t feel safe. And anybody that has taken the tube into central London in normal times understands why.”

In the CMI’s most recent survey of managers carried out in August 2020 it found that 74% of managers cited the risk of contracting coronavirus as employees’ most common concern, while a previous survey found that 91% of managers said “blended working” – a mixture of remote and office working – motivated them, 85% said it made them more productive and 77% said it made them more satisfied.

Exclusive polling by the CMI for the Guardian also reveals that nearly half of managers (42%) believe a lack of childcare caused by the coronavirus pandemic will have negative impacts for female employees, while only 20% believe it will be a problem for men. However, over half of managers (58%) said they did not think women’s career progression in their organisation would be impacted by a phased return to work.

Francke does not share their confidence, and warned that there was a real risk of decades of female progress in the workforce being put into reverse without action from the government.

The “unfortunate” requirement on companies to report their gender pay gaps was lifted this year, but should be reimposed in 2021 alongside a requirement to report on the ethnicity pay gap, she said, adding that the Financial Conduct Authority – which investors and CEOs take note of – should be in tasked with fining companies that fail to address their gender pay gaps rather than the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

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“It’s a matter of importance for the Equality and Human Rights Commission of course, but they don’t have the wherewithal or enforcement capability,” she said. “You need to look at bodies that investors and CEOs listen to tend to be the financial regulators.”

Significant fines – in addition to a dint in companies desirability to investors – would act as real incentives to companies who only paid lip service to addressing their gender pay gaps, she added.

“There must be consequences for those that don’t make progress. Transparency is great, but transparency with teeth is better,” she said. Companies should also be looking at their ethnicity pay gap – and take steps to close them, she said. “We know from many studies companies that have more diverse management teams outperform those who don’t. So why wouldn’t you want to make progress?”

The pandemic had been a catalyst for a shift in flexible and remote working that women’s groups had been calling on for years, she added. “Suddenly, you know, what they were going to do in five years they had to do in five days. And they did it,” said Francke. “And once people see what it can be like then that emboldens them to actually create those conditions that they prefer. I think the companies that offer flexible and blended working will benefit because they’ll have a much broader talent pool.”

She fired a warning shot to companies eager to return to factory settings: “There is no going back from the fact that flexible working works. And if you’re going to take it away from people when they know it works, you’re going to pay a price.”

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