How will Covid-19 affect gender equality?

The accelerated move towards flexible working brought about by the crisis may benefit women, but risks offices becoming ‘men’s dens’. Gillian MacLellan and Abbie Harley explain how employers can mitigate this

How will Covid-19 affect gender equality?

The closure of workplaces as a result of Covid-19 has significantly accelerated the move towards flexible working. Many employers that were previously sceptical have been forced to embrace remote working, technology issues have been overcome and businesses are waking up to the potential cost savings of long-term working from home. 

From an employee perspective, many are in favour of working from home being the ‘new normal’. This has prompted employers to revisit their workplace strategies with a view to long-term change; some are planning ‘hub’ offices where staff only attend for key meetings, while others will allow employees more flexibility to choose how often they attend the office.

Impact from a gender perspective

It is important that businesses consider the potential gender impact of their plans and ask what effect their future workplace model has on gender equality.

A recent study by the IFS and the UCL Institute of Education found that among those doing paid work from home during lockdown, mothers are more likely than fathers to be spending their working hours simultaneously caring for children. This has resulted in mothers doing, on average, a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours of fathers.

Offering flexible working solutions will help female employees balance their work and home lives. It could simultaneously result in the creation of what the Fawcett Society is calling a ‘two tier’ workforce, with offices becoming ‘men’s dens’. Workplaces where one gender dominates in terms of numbers present various challenges for employers. It can have a negative impact on a company’s culture, indicating anything but the inclusive feel most employers want to generate. Gender balance within an office affects the social dynamics of team interactions.

It also potentially affects who gets what work – the person you chat to multiple times a day at the coffee machine and grab lunch with, or the virtual colleague on the end of the VC? It can affect whose voice is ‘heard’ – the ‘centre of gravity’ of a meeting is typically in the meeting room, with those at home feeling less connected and involved. 

While we are all working from home, these issues have not come to the fore; we are all virtual colleagues. As more mixed-working models emerge, this level playing field will start to tilt and businesses need to take proactive steps to manage this.

Get your messaging right – flexibility isn’t just for women. Make it clear it is open to all employees to request to work flexibly, regardless of gender, age or caring responsibilities. A clear policy and consistent approach on an organisation’s flexible working arrangements should help to reduce inconsistencies.

Encourage senior stakeholders to walk the walk. Allowing employees to see that even the most important roles can be undertaken flexibly helps move away from the misconception that home working is somehow less valuable than work carried out in the office. 

Audit. As we move out of lockdown many employers are sending out return to work questionnaires to employees to try to accommodate individual preferences and circumstances. These provide a good opportunity to audit the gender balance of those asking to come back to the office. 

Communication. Maintaining communication with employees during lockdown has been essential. Employers should continue to focus on this as staff start to return to the workplace, ensuring that those who remain working from home continue to not only be kept in the loop but be treated as a core part of the team. 

Train your leaders to manage differently. Busy managers often just want the job done and will opt for the fastest and easiest route to achieve that. Taking time out with them to talk through how they are going to manage their teams in a mixed model of working will be time well spent. 

Keep it under review. Both employees’ and employers’ needs are likely to change over time as the world slowly progresses to the ‘new normal’. Employers should monitor the situation, carrying out further surveys and audits to ensure their approaches to flexible working correspond with those changing needs and do not undermine their diversity and inclusion goals. 

Gillian MacLellan is a partner, and Abbie Harley senior associate, at CMS