I think most of us agree that the coronavirus pandemic has impacted every corner of our society and will have a lasting effect on our communities for years to come. Although, it’s clear to see that some have endured more than others.
To mark international women’s day, I took the opportunity to reflect upon the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on women in the workplace. I also look towards a post pandemic future at work, and consider what this might be like, and whether the pandemic will change how businesses operate for the better.
A report by the Commons women and inequalities committee said that while ministers acted quickly to protect jobs and adapt welfare benefits, gender disparities were ignored. It pointed to evidence that women were more likely to be employed in sectors shut down during the pandemic and therefore more at risk of job loss or being placed on furlough*.
Studies have shown that women were the majority (52.1%) of workers placed on furlough across the UK between March and August 2020**. Given that the government’s furlough scheme (at the time this was written) provides for 80% of pay for hours not worked (subject to the cap), more women than men are likely to have experienced a drop in income. In addition, when away from the workplace, many miss out on important social experiences and the opportunity for learning or to share skills.
Statistically women bear the bulk of childcare responsibilities within the UK. So, the impact of the pandemic on them, in terms of school closures, has been significant. Balancing work with childcare and home-schooling has placed many families under substantial strain.
Statutory dependent leave is available for employees to deal with emergencies involving a dependent. Eligible employees may also take a period of statutory parental leave. However, both types of leave are unpaid, so result in loss of income.
Furlough is an option in terms of support for staff with caring responsibilities arising from the pandemic. However, it is ultimately up to the employer to choose whether to access the furlough scheme. Besides, as previously detailed, although certainly preferable for parents in comparison to unpaid leave, furlough may not necessarily be an attractive option either.
Ultimately, a third of working mothers reported having lost work or hours due to a lack of childcare during the pandemic***.
In terms of mental health and wellbeing, research has also suggested that nearly two-thirds (62%) of women reported feeling increased levels of stress or anxiety due to the pandemic, compared to less than half (48%) of men****.
And then there is the gender pay gap. The gender pay gap is the difference between the average earnings of men and women across a workforce. Large businesses are required to report on their gender pay gap and publish the results. This is an important tool used to encourage employers to close their gap. Last year, the requirement to report on the gender pay gap was removed because of the pandemic. This year, businesses may delay their reporting for up to 6 months. Although the decision was considered a pragmatic response to the pandemic, there are concerns that it runs the risk of sending out the wrong message, suggesting that reporting on the gender pay gap is not a high priority.
The pandemic has required us to adapt quickly in uncertain times, with businesses forced to consider alternative methods of working. In many cases, it is the resilience of the people within those businesses that really shone through.
We demonstrated (perhaps on a greater level than ever before) that flexible working is good for business. We also acknowledge that, although not for everyone, home working brings many benefits for both businesses and employees.
It seems that these types of more flexible working arrangements are starting to become the norm as opposed to the exception in many cases, therefore removing previous stigma around this type of working arrangement.
The pandemic magnified the challenges faced by women at work, and gender equality issues within the workplace more generally. I am hopeful we can use what we have learned to make a real positive difference.
I expect we will see more businesses review their working practices and introduce a greater level of flexibility within their workplace. This includes in terms of flexible working hours and where work is carried out (i.e., in the office or at home). The pandemic has shown many that, with the right leadership, such arrangements promote a culture of trust, increase productivity, and encourage long term commitment.
In terms of managing flexible working requests, I would encourage employers to review these with an open mind and remember to take a considered and objective approach when determining whether requests can be met. If not, what are the business reasons why not, and can an alternative arrangement be achieved that would accommodate both parties.
Businesses should be mindful to promote flexible working and family related policies amongst men within their business as well as women, and those in more senior roles. This may lend itself to more equal distribution of childcare responsibilities within households and therefore support women in pursuing and building their careers. If senior employees are making use of flexible working opportunities, that may help to normalise flexible working and signal that it doesn’t stall career progression.
Perhaps an increased use of technology and a reduced requirement to travel or spend time away from home will also make it less challenging for women with children to do business and make their mark.
Recognising and rewarding different styles of leadership will also go a long way towards promoting gender equality in the workplace, as would developing awareness and understanding of bias and unconscious bias at work.
It maybe that the pandemic allowed many employees the opportunity to ‘take stock’ and consider in greater detail what is important to them in terms of working life. As such, employers may find that they need to think a little more creatively about ways to attract and retain the best talent. A diverse and dynamic workplace culture will play an important role in this.
Employment Law and HR Consultant
RT Advance Consulting