How businesses can stop the pandemic wiping out workplace gender equality

Anne Pritam and Leanne Raven round up the key steps employers can take to support their female staff – and protect themselves 

The latest data from UN Women suggests that the work over the last 25 years to increase gender equality could be wiped out by the pandemic. So what can employers do to support their female staff who are facing increased pressure?

Collect data

Collecting data will paint a picture about the stress points staff are facing and how best to offer support. This includes data concerning which employees have dependents, who has submitted flexible working requests since the pandemic and the responses they received, and who has taken unpaid leave or parental leave. This data will be helpful in suggesting which areas of the workforce may need extra support during this time.

Tailor communication

Once the collected data has been analysed, employers should thoughtfully communicate with that demographic. If the right questions are asked in the right way, the appropriate support can be offered. Getting ahead of the game is key and being proactive rather than reactive will help to avoid grievances or employment tribunal claims further down the line. 

Discuss support options

In the current climate there are numerous factors that could impact on job performance, whether that’s mental health issues, wellbeing, financial pressures, childcare or caring responsibilities. 

UN Women has reported that even before the pandemic, women spent an average of 4.1 hours per day performing unpaid work, compared with 1.7 hours for men. With the mounting pressures that continued remote working brings, businesses should not shy away from conversations about how employees are coping and what support they can offer. 

Consider temporary changes

Employers should consider whether formal or informal policies and practices can be introduced to assist employees. For example, covering situations where childcare is not available as a result of the pandemic and parents may have to work in shifts to cover their workload and childcare. 

These do not have to be permanent policies and can be discretionary dependent on the specific circumstances. For many organisations, changing their working practices as a result of the pandemic has been successful and the introduction of more policies to allow flexibility for employees may be a natural progression.

What's in this for employers?

Undoubtedly the pandemic has resulted in added pressures for businesses as well as employees, and therefore implementing these changes may seem like an unnecessary addition to the workload. So why should employers take this on?

Employers have a legal duty not to discriminate directly or indirectly against those with protected characteristics (which include sex). Sex discrimination claims cover not only overt discriminatory sexist behaviour, but also more subtle forms where an apparently neutral policy or practice disadvantages women more than men. 

Discrimination claims can be severely damage business finances as there is no cap on compensation awards. Organisations should recognise the additional burdens that their employees are facing and offer appropriate support – a failure to do so could lead to legal claims.

A more supportive workplace is typically a happier one and it is long proven that a happier, diverse workforce leads to greater productivity and staff retention. So it also makes business sense to support employees during this time. It is those employers that have not supported their staff during the pandemic that have come under fire in the press. Once a business’s reputation has been tarnished, it is hard to recover. By recognising the impact of the crisis on gender equality, and more specifically on their female employees, employers can support staff and in doing so protect their reputations.

Anne Pritam is a partner and Leanne Raven a professional support lawyer at Stephenson Harwood