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The return to office working carries a risk of gender-based ‘proximity bias’ in an industry that is now losing more women than it is attracting, leading broadcasters have warned.

In a panel assembled by Ofcom, A+E Networks UK general manager Heather Jones said the pandemic had been a “double-edged sword” for women as it had shown the benefits of flexible working but they largely bore the brunt of childcare.

She said that when A+E gave staff the option of returning to the office, more men came in than women.

“This risk of the office becoming male-dominated is something we need to be careful about,” she said. “A notion of ‘proximity bias’ – a whole new phrase – where people would be in a less favourable position if they’re choosing to spend more time at home, even though that’s the opportunity being provided by their employer.”

A+E restricted meeting times to 10am-12pm and 1pm-4pm to help parents with childcare in lockdown and further mental health and wellbeing initiatives and events were crucial to ensuring companies continued to make women feel welcome, Jones added. 

Netflix vice-president of original series Anne Mensah urged managers to go the extra mile in supporting people nervous about new ways of working as companies increase face-to-face contact.

“A lot of people coming out of the pandemic have actually felt comfortable being themselves in their own environment,” she said. “Going back into an office environment, they have to consider how they fit into a group of people that they’ve never met before. It’s every manager’s responsibility to go, ‘what is the extra I can do just to be thoughtful around the people I’m working with?’”

Yesterday Ofcom’s five-year Diversity and Equal Opportunities in UK Broadcasting report highlighted that in 2021-2022, more women left TV than joined. Women made up 46% of the TV workforce, down from 47% the previous year.

This follows the recent Locked Down and Locked Out report’s finding that 61% of working mothers had seriously considered leaving the industry in the past year.

As well as Covid, Ofcom found that almost every interviewee referenced the #timesup and #metoo movements sparked by the revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017.

“These social reckonings were unignorable and created powerful mandates for change,” Ofcom’s report stated.

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