Let’s not fool ourselves: Women in the workplace have not benefited from the ‘flexibility’ offered by the pandemic

By Peakon Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Sheree Atcheson

Many believe the coronavirus pandemic answered working women’s calls for greater flexibility – this could not be further from the truth.

Over the years, flexible working has been hailed as key to getting more women into the workplace and leadership positions – and closing the gender pay gap. In 2018, a study showed that 70% of women who dropped out of their careers said they’d still be working if they had flexibility in the way they worked. Entrenched gender ‘norms’ and expectations mean that women often take on the majority of domestic and childcare responsibilities and greater flexibility makes it easier for them to juggle their personal and professional lives.

Bearing the above in mind, it might be assumed that the working from home scenario that many have been forced into for the past five months might suit women, providing them with the flexibility they’ve craved. However, it’s important to remember that these are not normal times. With schools and nurseries shut, many women found themselves side-lining in teaching and childcare. A report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that, since the beginning of March, women are spending more of their working hours simultaneously trying to care for children compared to men.

When you look at this alongside the increased pressure many have felt to be productive at work and the heightened mental stress of taking care of themselves and their families, it’s clear that changed working patterns during this pandemic have done more harm than good for women in the workforce.

It cannot be overlooked how women at the intersection of gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background have been affected by this pandemic as well, with women of colour highly represented in essential roles that do not provide the option of working remotely. Additionally, studies have shown women of colour (specifically Black and Latinx women) have experienced job losses at higher levels than their white counterparts.

Equitable support for women (and people) of all different backgrounds must become the norm to embed inclusive working practices in this new world.

Mistakes have been made

Against this backdrop, it’s likely that many women will have felt – and worried about – their reduced productivity during the pandemic. What they really needed at this time was reassurance that their organisations trusted them to do their best and get their work done in their own way. However, some organisations chose to do the opposite and implement workforce monitoring tools to track their employees’ productivity.

When people feel like their productivity is being monitored, it really lodges in their psyche, eroding their relationship with their employer. This can be a big issue for women, who already have a greater propensity to things like imposter syndrome – something over six in 10 UK women suffer from. Already under pressure to perform, these tools will have exacerbated feelings of inadequacy.

Even those companies that did demonstrate the required empathy, which was the majority, may change their tune with the return to the workplace and the shift in focus towards economic recovery. Employees are now under increasing pressure to be productive and bring in revenue. Those who need to remain at home and continue to take care of children or family members, the majority of whom will be women, risk being left behind and being viewed as unproductive or less valuable.

For some, the choice may not even exist. As high streets across the UK lift their shutters and the manufacturing sector fires up its machines, those women who work in these settings must return to work or risk losing their jobs altogether. These jobs cannot be done from home, and with schools and childcare facilities only now reopening at full capacity, many may still not be able to return to their workplaces even if they want to.

It is no secret that the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic has already disproportionately affected women. According to the IFS report, mothers who were in paid work before lockdown are 47% more likely to have permanently lost their jobs or quit. This trend must be curbed before the damage is irreversible.

Learning and moving forward

To avoid losing valuable employees, each organisation should keep varying individual circumstances in mind when pulling together their return to work plans. Establishing a two-way dialogue is key. Don’t assume people are managing – ask how they are coping. If employers want to create a more gender diverse workforce, they need to properly understand the struggles that individual women are facing and take steps to address these.

If organisations become better places for women, we will see more women progress in their careers and take on leadership roles. And this will only benefit organisations and the wider economy. Peakon collected data on how women leaders influence company performance (based on responses from 60,000 employees). The findings suggest at women-led companies, employees demonstrate stronger belief in the strategy, the communication is more effective, and the mission more clearly defined. This in turn leads to a greater belief in the company’s product or service. These sentiments are more important than ever as business and their employees navigate the fallout from Covid-19.

The Covid-19 pandemic may have done more harm than good for women’s career progression and stability, but the battle is far from lost and well worth fighting. As organisations reassess their values and operations moving into the next phase of work, they need to grasp the opportunity to revaluate how they support people from all different backgrounds, ensuring time is spent to understand the intersection of those who identify with more than one marginalised group. They need to remember that diversity is intrinsic to business success – but this can only be achieved through the creation of an inclusive workplace, where everyone is treated equitably.

Author: Editorial Team

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