Women in the workplace: The impact of the pandemic on equality and what the long-term picture looks like

 


While Covid-19’s disruption has been widespread and indiscriminate, the shake-up may not have had an equal effect on both sides of the gender divide. So we asked a range of female commentators if the pandemic has helped or hindered their mission to smash the glass ceiling. The setback certainly hasn’t stifled the clamor for gender equality, now even audible from the classroom.

Leah Katz is a 13-year-old student at an independent school in Wimbledon. Earlier this year she gathered and published insights from 11 inspiring women holding media roles. “We must share our stories of gender injustice everywhere and not be silenced or afraid to talk,” says Leah.

“Many women are now speaking out thanks to the efforts of campaigns like Everyone’s Invited and Me Too.” One of Leah’s contributors was actress, author, and activist Joanna Lumley, OBE, who states: “Women are massively complex and impressive creatures, as are men, and we don’t need help to shine, just opportunity.”

Women certainly adapted faster and more easily than their male counterparts to working from the kitchen table during the lockdown. Accustomed to juggling work and domestic duties, they were more comfortable squeezing the challenges of homeschooling and caring for elderly relatives, friends, and neighbors into their new routine.

Those, that is, who were lucky enough to keep their jobs. The pandemic gave some employers an excuse to trim the payroll – or parts of it. In July 2020 a survey of nearly 20,000 mothers and pregnant women conducted by charity Pregnant Then Screwed revealed that 15 percent of respondents had either been made redundant or were expecting to be.

As many as 72 percent of the mothers surveyed had been obliged to work fewer hours because of childcare issues. Of the employed mothers, 81 percent said they needed childcare to be able to do their job, but 51 percent did not have the necessary childcare provision in place to enable them to work.

Not all stories were negative. Tessa Clarke is co-founder of the local community app OLIO, which connects neighbors with each other to help them share more and waste less.

The app has been successful in tackling food waste, linking neighbors and businesses to share surplus food that would otherwise be thrown away. “As we were remote-first prior to Covid, the impact for us in terms of ways of working was minimal,” says Clarke.

“We were also fortunate in that OLIO continued to grow during the pandemic, with listings on the platform increasing fivefold and members growing to 4.5m globally, so we didn’t have to deal with a downturn in users.”

Award-winning financial adviser and founder of The Money Panel, Catherine Morgan provides financial advice, coaching, and training for women. She admits that there were times over the past 18 months when she felt positive, and other times when the lack of connection felt hard.

“It is OK not to be resilient and acknowledge that we are struggling,” she says. “Resilience is more about self-acceptance, to recognize when you are not feeling resilient or in balance in order to replenish our well-being rather than solely focusing on just coping.”

With over 26 years in PR and campaigning, Sara Price has advised some of the largest companies and charities in the world from Unicef to Avon, and now coaches entrepreneurs and business owners through her new company, Actually. After a year of trials and experimentation, Price had been due to launch in late March 2020.

Mary Portas poses during a reception at Clarence House in London to celebrate the Southbank Centre's WOW - Women of the World festival on March 8, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Yui Mok (Photo credit should read YUI MOK/AFP via Getty Images)
Mary Portas sees a better society post-Covid-19 (Photo: YUI MOK/AFP/Getty)

“You can imagine my consternation when the pandemic began,” she said. “I needn’t have worried; my business boomed during the lockdown and far exceeded all of my projections. It was exhausting and relentless, but I also learned a huge amount and became more confident in my decision-making, my leadership, and my purpose as a result.”

Another of Leah Katz’s contributors was Sarah Austin, entrepreneur, and director of the Lloyds Bank British Business Awards. Austin is a fervent supporter of the 30% Club, whose goal is to ensure that the businesses in the FTSE 100 have a least 30 percent women on their boards.

She says: “In the 2020 FTSE 100, which are the top 100 businesses in the UK, there were only five female CEOs – and therefore 95 male CEOs. How is this acceptable?”

Dame Inga Beale is a director of the 25×25 initiative, whose goal is to have 25 women CEOs in the FTSE100 by 2025. “There are many initiatives to look at rebalancing the number of women in senior positions,” she says.

“More and more companies are proactively putting in place specific development programs to retain women in the workplace, they are setting representation targets at all levels, and some are building gender balance goals into bonus schemes.

“It feels very different to nearly 40 years ago when I started work, and we have seen some progress in terms of more and more women rising up the ranks, but it seems very slow. When I look at the minimal female CEO representation in the FTSE 100, I realize we still have a long way to go. That’s why I’m so passionate about our 25×25 initiative.

“This is being supported by major FTSE corporations with the aim of having 25 women CEOs in the FTSE 100 by 2025. An ambitious goal but we have to aim high in order to make some real progress.”

Tessa Clarke is hopeful for the future: “I do believe women will benefit in the long term. Many in positions of authority have seen successful implementations of flexible working and so now will be much more amenable to rolling it out in their organizations.

“This will ultimately benefit women, whose requests for flexible working had previously fallen on largely deaf ears.”

She also believes the looser workplace boundaries will produce greater flexibility for all. “If more men are working from home, then that also empowers their partners to be able to go into an office if required for their jobs.”

Catherine Morgan is more guarded: “Whilst working from home has its benefits, it also has its drawbacks. The isolation and lack of social interaction and connection can be debilitating and have harsh consequences of resiliency and human disconnection.

“The pandemic has certainly forced companies to re-evaluate their flexible working arrangements which should see a positive effect on retaining more female leaders. But in order for this to continue beyond a short-term solution, the history of gendered stereotypes still makes it harder for women to be on an equal playing field with men.”

In her latest book, Rebuild: How To Thrive In The New Kindness Economy, retail expert Mary Portas envisages how we might build a better post-pandemic society: “Creating an economy that’s not just based on growth and how much we sell, but one built on kindness and the well-being of our planet and people.”

The optimists among us share her view that the old structures really are being torn down. But more cynical pundits suspect that the simple dynamics of supply and demand will continue to shape the future landscape: who needs who more, and who has no choice but to pay the economic price.”

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