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Gender equality: why the Covid-19 pandemic has created a careers crisis for women

Women’s careers have been disproportionately impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic, so what can organisations do to redress the balance?

2nd Sep 2020
CEO City CV - Global Outplacement & Career Consultancy
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What will 2020 be remembered for? There’s only one real answer. Historically, pandemics such as Ebola and Zika impacted the most on women and lower income households. Covid-19 has proved to be no different.

Given the other commitments that women frequently have to juggle, what impact will the pandemic have on their future careers and their chances of promotion?

For women, the challenges have been multiple. Many have had to step back from work due to caring responsibilities, and in so doing have been losing visibility and relinquishing status. Some have had to juggle their careers for nearly six months, balancing extra childcare with domestic chores, adapting to the Zoom era, and caring for elderly relatives while facing an uncertain future. We’re now emerging into a vastly different world. The landscape has changed, and the way forward isn’t certain. What is clear is that it won’t be business as usual.

Taken captive by Coronavirus

Research by PwC published in May 2020 found that 78% of those who have already lost their jobs as a result of coronavirus are women. What’s more, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education found that mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit, and 14% were more likely to have been furloughed since the start of the crisis.

In recent weeks, we’ve heard that retail and hospitality are expected to be hardest hit – and the number of women working in these sectors is significant. Given the other commitments that women frequently have to juggle, what impact will the pandemic have on their future careers and their chances of promotion? How successfully will they navigate a volatile landscape, especially after a hiatus? Let’s explore some of the most relevant issues.

Gender pay gap

Experts have expressed concern about the impact on women’s earnings and career prospects which will result in widening the gap in gender equality. The pandemic led the government to exempt companies from having to file gender pay gap data this year. As a result only half did, according to Business in the Community.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society is unflinchingly clear about the repercussions: “in my view women’s workplace equality will have been set back decades by this crisis unless government intervenes to avert it.

“We’re looking at the prospect of a two-tier workplace where men go back and women stay home. It’s taken us 20 years to get this far on female participation in the workforce, but it could take only months to unravel”.

This is a key issue – and it’s going to take robust intervention (and sustained efforts) to mitigate the impact.

According to Maike Currie, investment director at Fidelity International: “even before coronavirus, women experienced a 18% gender pay gap, and a gender pension gap almost double that”.

Culture Pioneers link

Career progression

For women pursuing promotion and progression at the highest level, the pandemic may well have slammed the brakes on. When companies struggle in times of crisis, joining the board of directors becomes even harder. Following a US study which analysed 50,000 board elections in 1,100 publicly listed companies over 13 years, researchers found shareholders were normally happy to support female directors when everything was going well. If the company got into trouble, however, or if there was a crisis, they were much more likely to withdraw their support for the female candidate.

Sometimes, adversity can lead to a renewed sense of focus. For women who want to thrive, not just survive, galvanising their skills and attributes for leadership has never been more important.

Focus on flexibility

In 2019, only 15.3% of jobs were currently advertised as being open to flexibility – often roles in the lower pay brackets. One legacy of coronavirus is that this will change in a very significant way. A Gartner poll showed that 48% of employees are now likely to work remotely at least part of the time when the storm passes.

As we begin to emerge from lockdown measures, organisations globally are reacting in different ways: Twitter announced a uniform work-from-home policy, while Facebook and Google are allowing staff to stay at home until the end of the year, so that women do not have to make a case to stay away from the office.

Superdrug sanctioned paid leave for any employee not able to work due to childcare challenges. Linklaters crowdsourced inspiration to support parents who worked remotely through its Ideas Pathways campaign.

So while it’s good news that many businesses are adopting flexible working arrangements which will extend beyond the pandemic, the infrastructure will need to be in place to support this so that women can successfully combine work and other responsibilities.

How women can empower themselves

According to Dr Clare Wenham, associate professor of global health policy at London School of Economics and Political Science (whose daughter memorably charmed a BBC newsreader recently during a live interview), all epidemics have gendered effects: “the problem that is no one had talked about it, and policymakers weren’t aware”.

During these unprecedented times, women have shown leadership qualities of impressive calibre, witnessed especially in countries like New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany and Finland. Their clarity, compassion and empathy have won them global applause for managing public health and expectations as the crisis took hold.

 “Covid-19 laid bare the inequities that exist in our society, whether it’s gender, or race, and really showed how interconnected we all are,” reiterates Lorraine Hariton, CEO of Catalyst.

“I think business leaders in particular are very aware of that, because they have a very broad constituency and the shift to stakeholder rather than shareholder capital was already happening. So here’s an opportunity to really lean into that change”.

Looking ahead

Although it may not feel like it, this pandemic will pass. Organisations will have learned lessons about engaging and nurturing a resilient workforce. There will be more compassion towards flexible working options to suit employees. We will be better equipped in terms of technology to work in more agile ways. What has now become important is building confidence as well as adapting and developing a sustainable skillset.

Interested in this topic? Read Why we should not forget diversity and inclusion during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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