At this crossroads for gender equality, what can employers do for parents?

Organisations need to get to grips with data, set clear expectations, and give dads permission to look after their children in order to better support working mums, says Verena Hefti

People are starting to return to the office, but the threat of a second Covid-19 wave is looming large. Some UK schools are talking of not running at full capacity even in autumn.

This means working parents may need to continue to juggle childcare and work for a while. We need to plan for the unexpected; what happens when local lockdowns force school closures or an innocent winter cough results in the whole family being isolated for a week or two?

So far, the lockdown has disproportionately affected mothers with young children. They are more likely to carry out the majority of childcare and housework, studies have found they are also more likely to have been furloughed, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies found they are more likely to be concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on their career progression. 

Over the next 12 months, if mothers continue to be the default emergency child carers, they won’t progress to senior roles which means that the gender pay gap will widen. More than one parent has mentioned to me recently that they are considering giving up and leaving their job.

We need to prevent gender equality from slipping back to the 1950s and take decisive action now. But what can we do?

First, data matters. Start by measuring how many women have been furloughed and made redundant compared to men. Don’t forget to track whether Covid-19 has affected the career progression of women. If it has, intervene. 

Second, get your most senior leader to be blunt and specific about what is allowed and what isn’t. Policies are important but not every line manager reads a policy and this is too important to sit in a virtual drawer. If nurseries are closed, do you expect your employees to get up at 3am so they can get their work done before the kids wake up at 6am? Probably not. But many parents we spoke to assumed this to be the expectation. The resulting reduced sleep for months is of course bad for productivity and for mental health. Ask your CEO to communicate their expectations directly to parents/carers and their managers.

Third, give dads explicit permission to look after their children. One mum, who worked for the same large energy firm as her husband, told me that her husband’s boss assumes his kids will be cared for by his wife. So train your managers on how to support parents and carers, but make sure the training explicitly mentions fathers. 

Finally, don’t fall into the trap of trusting that flexibility and home working alone will solve the problem. Yes, you have done incredibly well pivoting a whole organisation to home working at breakneck speed. But now what matters is whether flexible working and home working remains the default option. 

The gender pay gap is strongly driven by part-time work per hour being paid less than full-time work, according to the Office for National Statistics. In my experience, many mums have accepted a pay cut or less responsibility for the perk of being allowed to work from home. But today, now Covid has happened, leaders with young children say that for the first time in their lives, their commitment isn’t implicitly questioned when they dial into a meeting virtually. We need to keep it this way as employees begin to return to the office.

You can do this by making subtle changes, such as having criteria for when an employee is ‘allowed’ to attend a meeting face to face, as opposed to having criteria or a formal arrangement for when an employee is ‘allowed’ to dial in remotely.

We are at a historic crossroads with gender equality. With a few simple steps, you can steer your organisation in the right direction and prevent us slipping back into the 1950s.

Verena Hefti is CEO and founder of the Social Enterprise Leaders Plus