The future is flexible: How employers can support women at work
In response to the pandemic, many companies began offering flexible work options — something working women, especially those with children, would have benefitted from for decades. In this Business Perspectives, women in the design industry expand on the importance of flexibility and how employers can ensure women have the support they need to grow in their careers.


How do you think work places can continue to or expand their support for women? Do you feel our North American work culture still needs to shift to be more inclusive of women?


Kathleen Scott RGD: Statistically, we know women carry out more of the caregiving roles that take them away from work and sometimes prevent them from advancing in their careers. The pandemic has put this reality in the spotlight as many mothers have had to juggle the impossible task of working a full-time job while homeschooling their kids or watching a runny-nosed toddler who can’t be at daycare. If we’re really serious about gender parity and having more women in leadership roles, we need to stop thinking about the flexible work arrangements that have been implemented during COVID as temporary. Why are we only going to temporarily help out young parents and families? Why wouldn’t we take down some of these barriers for career advancement that disproportionately affect women?

It’s hard to have this conversation without talking about child care though. Where I live in rural Ontario, daycares are full and waiting lists are long. I know it's like this in many parts of Canada. A woman could have the most supportive and flexible workplace, but without reliable and affordable childcare, the juggling act continues. When we talk about the North American work culture shifting to be more inclusive to women, accessing child care in our communities has to be part of that dynamic.



Anonymous: This question certainly made me evaluate my own situation over the past two years. I’m lucky to be part of an organization that's been supportive of flexible work options throughout the pandemic. And, even with this flex work situation, I've found balancing my work and home responsibilities extremely challenging (case in point, my daughter just popped into my home office, and poof, there goes my train of thought). I share empathy for women who aren’t as fortunate to work for such caring and inclusive workplaces. The struggle of daycare costs, as well as feeling unavailable and disconnected from children, are all very real. Add in efforts to advance your career, and the pressure and fatigue goes up. One area that I think companies should focus on as we continue in this remote work culture is to ensure employees are creating and honouring boundaries to protect their well-being. It's all too easy to make yourself available at all hours of the day when your office is attached to your bedroom. Leadership needs to support and champion the health of their employees. Once that priority is established, women have the opportunity to rise up in the workforce and in a culture that protects them from burnout.



Karen Ng-Hem RGD: At minimum—creating space to contribute reinforces the value women bring to the workforce. It’s not just children we are caring for while juggling work deadlines and family responsibilities—we also have aging parents and self-care. However, with flexibility comes more responsibility, both professionally and personally. I’ve worked in traditional 9 to 5 models for organizations with 1 to 1,000+ employees. I haven’t experienced lack of female representation at these companies or their industries. In fact, it’s almost the opposite—where women were (by majority) expected to fulfill typical support roles. And even within that subset, single women were often expected to pick up the workload of their colleagues who were married or had kids when they had to leave “on time.” At one firm, I negotiated a 4-day work week at reduced pay. When I started, I was the flagship designer in a studio that was in its infancy. As the workload increased, our team grew. The fact that I worked until 2:00 a.m. was irrelevant when the “optics” were that I was "missing” on Fridays.


McKinsey & Company published a 2021 report on Women in the Workplace—stating that women have risen to the occasion, taking on extra work, nurturing their teams, being a champion of DEI. But, rather than feeling as though they don’t have places for advancement, burnout is the culprit that is escalating much faster among women than men. One in three women have expressed considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether.


What if we gleaned best practices from other models, like healthcare professionals who work three days on, two days off? There will always be room to expand when it comes to including more women in positions and places men have traditionally dominated. However, I might challenge, perhaps it’s not the flexible workspaces or hours we’re seeking; but, the ability to exercise more control within our roles (or design itself?). Sometimes, that’s what helps me grow.



Meggan Van Harten RGD: A shift in work culture and mom positivity is still needed. I went back to work while my husband looked after our daughter. It wasn’t the usual model, but it’s what worked for us. I had a business to run and a daughter to raise, so this is what made the most sense for our family. If you’re a working mom, then you’re seen as less involved with your child or less maternal. My maternal status was in question since I wasn’t the primary caregiver from 9–4:30 p.m. Of course, that was a horrible feeling, and society as a whole needs to stop thinking of work and life as two separate activities that require balancing from one another. Work is a part of my life, and I don’t see working as an activity that takes away from my life. It would have been hard for me not to work at all after having kids.

The workforce can support moms by providing flexibility. Maternity leave is not a holiday and is a different kind of hard work, so those who take time off and are re-entering the workforce shouldn't be penalized. The management tactic of "ass in chair" between 9-5 is outdated and detrimental to the growth of the workforce if we want to make it a more inclusive space for all parents. Let parents work when they can, give them resources to support their lifestyle (like if someone is breastfeeding or pumping, don’t book them for back-to-back meetings), and create a workplace culture of open dialogue so that people can tell you what they need.



Donna Graffi-Smith RGD: Employers need to keep listening to their employees to support them and take action. Everyone has unique needs, and flexibility isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. I’ve been very fortunate in my career, as my work flexibility started when I had my son 8 years ago. My family has always been my number one, and I’ve been able to balance both because my employer and the leaders around me are supportive. And it’s been to their benefit; I’m a more productive and loyal employee, and I've put my whole self into my role and position. I strive to be a better designer and leader, and show that they invested in me, and I will do the same for them. I wouldn't be in the position I am today without this flexibility and support. Flexibility needs to remain a priority, or companies will lose talented women to companies who are forward-thinking and providing more flexibility to working mothers.


I’m also going to plug an amazing report launched by Deloitte last Mother's Day that I had the pleasure of art directing and leading. Deloitte found that women continue to face a range of non-inclusive behaviors without adequate support from their direct managers and employers-at-large. Many employers have policies and procedures for reporting bias and discrimination, but few employers have cultivated cultures of trust where women feel comfortable voicing concerns without fearing negative career impacts. These pressures are forcing many women to make difficult decisions about whether to find another job or even leave the workforce altogether. We have to make sure this doesn’t happen; we need to support women.



Giulia Bonforte RGD: There is no doubt that this pandemic has opened our eyes to many things — it has certainly taught me to be much more communicative, patient, and organized. Flexible work, especially for women, should remain a priority, something on which women can count without sacrificing their careers. During these unprecedented times, we have been able to demonstrate that we can carry on a career and a family at the same time, without sacrificing either of them, but rather managing to balance everything. I think it is important now that the world of work finally recognizes the "flexibility" as a strength for us women and not as a weakness.



Iffat Jokhio RGD: Flexible work is what many of us — working parents in particular — have needed for decades now. If there’s one good thing that’s come out of the pandemic, it’s that we’ve all glimpsed into each other's living rooms and kitchen spaces, we’ve seen the little ones (fur and human babies alike) running in the background, we’ve all become more… human, and more accepting of the reality of what it’s like to be a working parent. This continues to take a toll on those who identify as women and moms more than any other identity, but it’s clear that flexibility in working hours is necessary for everyone. Instead of a perk of the pandemic lifestyle, it should be the norm.

I don't miss fitting my day around commuting to and from work, and though the time negotiation of the hours between drop-offs and pick-ups is still an integral part of my day, I think employers, coworkers, and clients are more accepting of the fact that my time is my own. As a result, I’m more transparent about blocking time in my work calendar for appointments and pick-ups. That’s just life, and why should anyone be made to choose between work or family? Why should choosing to have a family hold anyone back from advancing their career? For some organizations, the pandemic has revealed a real and necessary culture shift in how we work and play, but with the restrictions slowly lifting and some employers now calling people back to the office, we collectively need to lean into that shift to ensure it doesn’t go too far back the other way.



With over 4,000 Members across Canada, the RGD is a place where professional designers share information, support and adhere to ethical best practices and advocate for a greater understanding of the value of design and effective processes for selecting and working with professional designers.


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