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Lord Sugar’s working from home jibe slammed as study finds remote work keeps mothers in employment

‘A billionaire will never understand what it’s like to do the school run’ says author and presenter Anna Whitehouse

Maira Butt
Monday 19 February 2024 18:39 GMT
Paloma Faith navigates career and motherhood in new BBC documentary

Working from home keeps mothers in employment, a study has found.

New research suggests that the difference in employment rates between women with children and those without is narrowing because of more businesses allowing mothers to work remotely.

It comes as prominent figures including Lord Alan Sugar, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and James Dyson urged Britons to reverse working from home habits formed during the pandemic.

Lord Sugar has long expressed his views about those who prefer working from home and attracted criticism for saying people should be “paid less” for doing so.

Anna Whitehouse, an author and founder of Mother Pukka and Flex Appeal - a national campaign to encourage flexible working conditions - blasted Lord Sugar as out of touch.

She told The Independent that working from home, and other forms of flexible working, is crucial for mothers.

“It’s interesting that billionaires who have nannies helicoptered everywhere and have no idea what it takes to raise a family or the burden on women say this.

“It’s all very well to say ‘go back to the office’ from an ivory tower but you’re not existing in the average person’s shoes so you shouldn’t be speaking for them. A billionaire will never understand what it’s like to do the school run.”

The new study offers an alternative to the increasing pressure to return to the office. Conducted by University of Virginia professor Emma Harrington and economist Charles Kuhn, it was published online before peer review and has sparked a reaction on social media.

Using pre-pandemic data, the research discovered that 86 percent of women with a degree and without children were employed compared with 77 percent of women who were mothers.

It found that for every 10 per cent rise in working from home within a sector, the motherhood gap narrowed by almost one per cent, meaning that more mothers were employed in line with more people working from home.

Introducing the research entitled, Has the Rise of Work-from-Home Reduced the Motherhood Penalty in the Labor Market?, the authors said when women become mothers they often leave the labour force and that motherhood accounts for most of the gender gap in labour force participation, especially in highly paid careers.

Anna Whitehouse runs a national campaign to improve flexible working conditions (Anna Whitehouse/@mother_pukka)

The study said: “Work from home (WFH) may help mothers juggle work and child-care responsibilities. In time diaries, mothers who work from home report that they spend more than a third of their working time passively taking care of children, compared to negligible rates on-site.

“WFH may also reduce the logisitical costs of working by making it easier for mothers to, for example, pick up a sick kid from school or drop off a healthy kid at soccer practice.”

While working from home can be convenient for those with additional responsibilities, there is some research to say it can have a negative impact on the mental health of some.

Microsoft’s recent New Future of Work report found that employees who worked from home consistently were found to be “lonelier and more prone to feelings of guilt when calling in sick or taking breaks, leading to overcompensation”.

But Whitehouse believes it doesn’t take the entire ecosystem of work into account, including the impact of commuting on the environment as well as stress levels.

The mother and campaigner, who co-commissioned Flexonomics: The economic and fiscal logic of flexible working alongside Sir Robert McAlpine, says that flexible working conditions could add £55 billion to the economy.

“There’s nothing to prove it’s better for business and employees to work under a designated slab of MDF under strip lights,” she told The Independent.

She added that the push for flexible working is also about inclusivity.

“It’s not just about mums but also about getting flexible for those people with difficulties, anxieties and carring responsibilities.

“Working from home is just one element of flexible working along with working core hours, compressed hours, job shares and other forms of flexibility. Look at the homogoneous lump of greying billionaires and look at their agenda and you’ll see their drive and self-interest [in pushing against it].”

Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then screwed said: “This study shows something we’ve always known, that remote working enables those with caring responsibilities and those with disabilities to work and to work more hours.

“Unfortunately, it seems that many wealthy business owners are doing all they can to trash the benefits of home working, for reasons that are entirely unclear, so we are grateful to finally see research which supports the benefits it has to specific demographics. If the UK wants a progressive labour market that works for all employees, then remote working is an essential component.”

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