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31 January 2022

“Flexible working has nothing to do with working from home”: Anna Whitehouse on how the workplace punishes women

The Flex Appeal campaigner has spent five years pushing companies to be more reasonable about parents' time.

By Emma Haslett

It is easy to understand why Anna Whitehouse succeeds on social media: even over a video call, she is a fizzing ball of energy, all bright colours and big hair. 

Whitehouse is a former journalist who trained as a barrister, but in 2015 she was a social-media addicted new mother whose request for flexible working had just been turned down. 

“I got on very well with my boss: she didn’t want to lose me and I didn’t want to leave. But they couldn’t offer the flexibility I wanted because it would ‘open the floodgates to others’,” she says. She quit on the spot. 

She turned to the platform she knew best: Instagram. “I went from posting about avocado toast… to, ‘sorry, I can’t talk about any of these things anymore. Why aren’t we talking about the fact that I’ve just had to quit my job?’”

And so Mother Pukka, her online alter ego – along with its accompanying campaign, “Flex Appeal”, which pushes for flexible working to “become the norm” – was born. Whitehouse now boasts 341,000 Instagram followers and has co-written three books with her husband, the journalist Matt Farquharson, the latest of which is Underbelly, a novel exploring the effects of social media on new mothers.

Her flexible working campaign has begun to receive mainstream recognition: in January she persuaded the Bar Council to submit a recommendation to the government saying it “strongly urges” ministers to “look at overhauling this entire area of law in a way that strengthens the ability of employers, employees and other workers”. “This is for the next generation,” Whitehouse wrote on Instagram, beneath a picture of her in a black and white jumpsuit, posing defiantly with four bewigged and be-robed female barristers. 

There is a sense her online persona is carefully curated: today she is sprawled across that influencers’ favourite, a mustard-yellow velvet sofa, and she does have a tendency to lapse into Insta-clichés (“I’m as fiercely relentless and strong as I am sensitive and vulnerable”). But her sense of frustration around her campaign work is palpably real. At first she felt her message was stuck in an echo chamber of women who agreed that something must be done but didn’t actually take action, so she decided to “leave the squares” and organised a series of colourful flash mobs in cities across the UK, the first of which took place spontaneously after she “just put it out on Instagram”.

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The media attention these events generated helped her campaign, but Whitehouse also has less control over her own image. A recent profile described her as a “mumfluencer”, which she found frustrating. “There are no dadfluencers, there are no dadpreneurs. They crack on and aren’t judged or categorised in a way that I think women need to be.”

“The minute that sperm hits egg, you have become in society’s eyes a different person… ‘mumpreneur’, ‘mumfluencer’, ‘mummy blogger’ – what’s the other one? ‘Insta mum’. All of those are boxes to reduce women.”

One of her proudest achievements is Forever Flex, a report she has released with the construction company Sir Robert McAlpine, partly because it’s given her campaign legitimacy. “It’s shifted everything,” she says. 

The report found that after the pandemic, 70 per cent of employers wanted to keep more flexible hours, while 72 per cent wanted to keep working from home. Does this mean the pandemic has finally brought about the changes she has fought for? “I had companies, two weeks before 23 March 2020, saying ‘we love what you’re doing, but this will never shift for us. This is not something that would work in our industry.’ And then seemingly overnight, in a 48-hour period, if those companies hadn’t logged on and zoomed in, they would have had to shut down. What I found interesting was that when cold hard cash is at stake, it’s amazing what is possible.”

But Whitehouse is cautious about hailing our “new normal” as a triumph. Suggesting work from home has improved our lives is a red herring, she says. “Flexible working has nothing to do with working from home.” A real flexible work scenario would “look at what people are doing and not where they’re sitting,” she says. 

There’s no question the pandemic has been bad for women. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report 2021 suggests Covid has caused a “step back” of 39 years, with healthcare disrupted, gender-based violence increasing and girls being marginalised.  In the UK, Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities, abandoned rules forcing companies to report on their gender pay gap. Whitehouse is incandescent. 

“That was probably the most debilitating moment in all of this. When you’ve got the woman who’s supposed to have your back take away transparency. They didn’t take away VAT transparency, that was all fine… I think that was very telling.”

That’s why, she says, she has approached the Law Commission with her flexible working suggestions, rather than taking her campaign directly to the government. “When the Law Commission gets its teeth into something, it dots the Is and crosses the Ts to ensure that employers cannot get out of what’s legislated… My hope is that employees and employers will be protected by what we’re fighting for, because you don’t want to go from a burnout culture in an office to a burnout culture at home.” 

Everything she does, she says, is driven by an ambition that her two daughters, aged eight and four, aren’t left in the same position she was in. “I have a 30-year plan,” she says. “I will do everything to make sure the landscape shifted enough so that as we’re raising them up, someone else can’t shut the door in their faces.”

[See also: Don’t listen to the doomsters, my four-day week is pure joy]

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