We’re up for the cup, but women miss out

I’m looking forward to the World Cup, and so are millions of others. Some
employers are gearing up, partly recognising the reality that with the timing
of some matches in the early morning, they had better accept the certainty that
many in their workforce will be late for work. Two organisations at least –
Rover and Prudential – are allowing staff to work flexibly to watch, in the
interests of work-life balance, motivation and productivity. Others have
confirmed similar intentions. And where time off is not on the cards,
television screens, specially arranged for the occasion, will make sure that
thousands of other football enthusiasts won’t miss out.

It’s good that employers are exploring creative solutions to managing World
Cup-induced absence and sickness rates. Britain is moving on, and it’s a
welcome and encouraging sign.

But there’s a catch. Most of this progressive flexibility is aimed at men,
because football remains an overwhelmingly male spectator sport. And if the
clouds surrounding flexibility are breaking over the World Cup, the general
evidence is that employers remain highly controlling over our working time, and
within a very conventional industrial nine-to-five framework. Only a tenth of
the UK workforce have any influence over how they distribute their working time
over the working week.

And crucially, although flexible working is on the increase, it is still
denied to many female workers with caring responsibilities who could otherwise
benefit from it – allowing them to stay in the labour market and develop their
skills. It’s a measure of the acceptance of the male culture of our workplaces,
that organisations and individuals – uncomfortable with the concept of
flexibility for the array of family responsibilities that women readily assume
– are able to find the voice to suggest time off and TV screens for the World
Cup.

Equal opportunities for women have improved since sex discrimination was
outlawed 25 years ago, but there is still not just an alarming gap between male
and female pay, but the prevalence of a stubbornly male workplace culture. Yet
by 2006, women will make up more than half of the UK workforce, and by 2011
nearly 80 per cent of workforce growth will be accounted for by women. This
will be the last World Cup in which employers can construct flexibility for
their male workforce against a background of being grudging about it for women
– and not receive vocal backlash.

I’m afraid I share the same enthusiasm of most of my sex for the football
festival over the next month – but as we men hunker down enjoying our employers’
indulgence we should be more aware of the way the culture favours us. And
insist that it changes for our women colleagues.

By Will Hutton, chief executive, the Work Foundation

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