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In February, 2020, shortly before the corporate world retreated into Zoom, I was invited to an event on women in the workplace at one of the big consulting firms. The conversation topic was “the importance of fostering (and living) advancement, sponsorship and inclusive mindsets in the workplace.”

This event was up my alley. I’ve sat at the senior tables in companies we celebrate for their female-friendly workplaces and raised venture capital from the funders encouraging female entrepreneurship. Now with a toddler, I know the system doesn’t work for me and I’m searching for new solutions. Only, I couldn’t attend. The event to discuss how to improve the workplace for women was scheduled for my child’s bedtime and the beginning of the weekend: 6:30 p.m. on a Friday.

The incident summed up something I, and many of my fellow female professionals, have known for a long time: While corporate leaders rally around flexibility as a solution to the workplace gender gap, they still perpetuate the enduring doctrine that long hours are needed to succeed. This duplicity of corporate policies – whether intentional or not – completely counteracts career progression for women. More flexibility for some is not the answer. Changing the workday for all is. As we recover from the pandemic, we have a rare chance to reset and we shouldn’t waste the opportunity.

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Flexibility has been trumpeted as a key policy to close the gender gap, long before COVID-19 and the rapid drop-out of women from the workplace that followed. Allowing women to choose their start and finish times or dial in from home would allow them to work and balance their hectic personal lives. Companies listened and by 2018, 85 per cent of Canadian companies had flexible work policies, according to a Conference Board of Canada study.

While greater workplace flexibility has gotten women in the door and sticking around, it hasn’t helped us rise. Managers work longer hours than any other role and have been doing so for the past 30 years since Statistics Canada started reporting these data. So, if you scurry out of the office at 4 p.m. every day to pick up your kids, you’re less likely to get a promotion into or within the management ranks.

If women have to work long hours to get ahead and also carry the bulk of the housework, as studies continually show they do, how have women been rising in the corporate world? Through private conversations, I discovered the hush-hush method to female success: outsourcing. Nannies help care for children and do all the housework. A night nurse helps you recover after labour faster and return to work sooner.

The reality is we have a two-track system: The flexible route allows women to care for their families but stay stuck in junior roles, while outsourcing lets women ascend the ladder but is only for those who want – and can afford – it. This is not a sustainable nor inclusive solution.

Instead, why not reduce hours for all employees? Microsoft Japan gave Fridays off to all 2,300 employees in a 2019 pilot and productivity jumped 40 per cent. Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, permanently went to a four-day workweek while maintaining salaries. The shift has worked so well they are now a global champion of the four-day workweek and are studied by policy makers as proof this model can work. Other companies have switched to six-hour workdays, a model that Finland’s Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, is working to introduce nationwide. If skeptical, Adam Grant, the high-profile American organizational psychologist, promises us “we can be as productive and creative in six focused hours as in eight unfocused hours.”

Whichever permutation of a shortened work week, the key is that everyone participates – from the chief executive officer to those on the front line. Some may argue this is too severe. They’ll say we just need to assure employees that shorter hours won’t affect their performance review and have senior executives adopt greater flexibility in their own working hours to reduce the stigma. But these are bromides. As long as someone is working harder ahead of us, we’ll always be left behind. More so, housework and child care do not allow for occasional absences that managers can overlook. They require endless, daily activities that stretch for at least the first 15 years of a child’s life.

Cutting the workweek can fix the “work-life balance” sham that most women can attest to. It can also fix what The Atlantic writer Derek Thompson calls our unhealthy “workism” culture – “a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community” – that plagues men and women alike.

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Alternatively, companies could pay for the support women need once they enter junior management and need to work longer hours. A full-time caregiver for the year will put a parent back roughly six times the cost of annual tuition for a University of Toronto undergrad, and a night nurse for four weeks would eat up two months’ take-home salary for an average entry-level manager. There aren’t any good examples of companies paying for this kind of care because we have largely ignored the exceptional cost women who are primary caregivers bear in order to be in leadership roles.

COVID-19 has revealed the tenuous situation working women have been in for decades. While you join committees dedicated to “building the workplace back better,” let us not fall into the trap of half-measures that ignore the long-standing bad habits that continue to prioritize the status quo. Reset how we return to the office and we will directly affect who returns and in what level of the organization.

Jessica Weisz learned the rules of the business world while working at McKinsey & Co., BMO and in tech start-up world. She now advises companies on how to build profitable businesses that also contribute to a sustainable and inclusive economy and writes about this in her blog Rule Breaker.

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