The global pandemic has undoubtedly had a significant impact on work and workplaces everywhere. From the transition to remote work for office workers, to drastically changed workplaces due to restrictions and guidance and then the impact of furlough, there have been few employees who have not somehow been affected by Covid-19. The impact of the pandemic has not been evenly distributed amongst the working population, with some groups experiencing greater difficulties and career implications than others. Working women are just one of these groups.
Prior to Covid-19, our workplaces had existing, long-standing gender inequalities. Women on average earn less than men; the UK had a gender pay gap of 17.3% (for all employees) in 2019. Women undertake the majority of part-time work, which in turn contributes to pay and career stagnation, and they are underrepresented in senior leadership positions.
Covid-19 has been described as a ‘gendered pandemic’ with the potential to reverse many of the gains made in equality in recent decades, whilst simultaneously reinforcing gender stereotypes. Research has shown that during lockdown, women did more of the childcare on average than fathers, as well as more housework.
The evidence so far is drawing a compelling picture of pandemic-related gender inequality:
- According to McKinsey, women account for 54% of all global job losses, even though they make up just 39% of the global workforce.
- A TUC survey found that nearly three-quarters of UK working mothers had their request for furlough for childcare reasons turned down.
- Women, and mothers, in particular, have been found to be more likely to reduce their working hours than fathers.
- Twice as many mothers than fathers report that they would have to take time off with no pay as a result of school closures.
Nearly 70% of respondents to a Deloitte survey said that their lives had been disrupted as a result of the pandemic and they feared for their career growth as a result.
The ‘too long, didn’t read’ summary of all this data? We had a problem before the pandemic in relation to gender equality in the workplace, and Covid-19 has made it much, much worse.
There are a few signs that not everything is as bad as initially feared; for example, women’s working hours overall have fallen less than men’s during the pandemic according to the Resolution Foundation; this data considers women as a whole, whereas the picture for working mothers specifically is less positive. Only time and future research will tell us the full story of the impact of Covid-19 on gender equality.
Future challenges for women
The pandemic has led to a prolonged period in which there has not been a level playing field for working women. Some will have been unable to develop or perform at the level they would have wished to without the pressures of Covid-19. Others will have been forced out of the labour market altogether and will have to rebuild their careers in the future. These factors may well have long-term implications for earnings and career progression, lasting well beyond the pandemic itself.
As a result of the so-called ‘great working from home experiment’, many office-based employers are intending to implement hybrid working models in the future, but there are fears that instead of helping gender equality, this may actually have negative implications for working women. More women than men have expressed the desire to work from home – and it’s very possible that this is to allow them to work around childcare and domestic labour.
Will we therefore end up with a gender divide, where offices are full of men, but women are spending comparatively more time working from home? If this possible future were to materialise, it would bring additional implications. We tend to be biased towards people that we can see working, and research suggests that working remotely can lead to fewer opportunities and reduced financial rewards. Home or hybrid working may not, therefore, be the panacea that we all hope it might be, for gender equality at least.
Of course, the issues in workplaces often reflect current societal norms and stereotypes about who is responsible for care giving and domestic responsibilities. These norms play out in our workplaces when women reduce their hours (and sometimes their seniority) or leave the labour market entirely when they have a family, perpetuating further the gender pay gap and inequalities. This is not to say that employers cannot take important steps to tackle pandemic-related gender career implications.
What should employers do?
There are a number of steps that employers can take to begin to level the playing field and prevent future problems from materialising or escalating.
Look at your data
Look at your own data to identify your potential problem areas. Who is taking special leave? Who has left your workplace and requested furlough for childcare purposes? Who has been rewarded, recognised, and promoted during the pandemic? Does the data tell any stories about how the pandemic is affecting women in your workplace, when compared to male co-workers?
Support working parents
Continue to support working parents with family-friendly policies. The pandemic is far from over, and education and childcare may continue to be disrupted for some time to come, potentially disadvantaging working mothers. Flexible working (with time flexibility in particular) will continue to help parents navigate the challenges of juggling work and home.
When recruiting, seek to offer flexible working opportunities and state this expressly in job advertisements. Don’t require new starters to wait for 26 weeks to discuss flexible working.
Make sure hybridity is inclusive
Design any future hybrid working strategies with inclusion in mind. This must include training people managers on flexible working stigma and unconscious biases that lead us to favour those with which we work in close proximity.
Promote gender equality
Promote gender equality throughout the entire employment lifecycle. Consider what barriers you may have to the progression of women in your workplace – and where may the pandemic have exacerbated your specific issues?
Review your policies
Review policies on performance appraisal, grade progression, reward, and recognition, and identify if there are any barriers, however unintentional, to gender equality within them.
If organisations do nothing, we risk creating even more gender inequalities that will continue long into the future. Covid-19 will leave a legacy on work and employment in many ways. Some, like hybrid working, have the potential to change things for the better, including boosting inclusion – but only if we take deliberate steps to design it to do so.
Gemma Dale is an experienced senior HR professional, CIPD Chartered Fellow, HEA Fellow, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics, including webinars and articles for myhrtoolkit HR software. Gemma is the co-author of the book ‘Flexible Working’ published by Kogan Page in 2020 and a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University.
The myhrtoolkit HR software system is used by over 1,000 SMEs in the UK and Ireland to streamline their day-to-day HR admin and activities with easy tools to manage staff holidays and absence, performance, training, benefits, and HR documentation.