Could Covid boost gender-balanced cultures?

The pandemic could signal an opportunity to improve equality in businesses, says Caroline Gosling

Building a gender balanced business culture is a bit like stepping out and running that first 5km. We absolutely know it is life enhancing and good for us, it is a proven fact that gender diversity is key to financial success, but we just seem to be somewhat slow on the uptake. Introduce a global pandemic to this conundrum and despite the introduction of universal remote working – the stuff of dreams pre Covid-19 – it appears not to be all plain sailing. 

Covid-19 enabled remote working for many women, but it has been reductive from a functional, developmental and wellbeing perspective for others.  

Female leaders are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of Covid-19 according to a recent report. Not at all surprising when you consider the burden of unpaid care, which increased during the pandemic, falls disproportionately on women.

But here’s the thing, what if the so-called ‘big pause’ could be used as a force for good, a springboard to rethink the future? A line in the sand to reinvent and accelerate gender balanced culture in business for decades to come. What if we finally addressed the old barriers: the inherent and double blind bias, the depressing C-suite decline, the perception that it is about ‘fixing’ women, not a societal and business problem, as well as exploring the most recent barriers?  

With that in mind, we set out to listen, probe and explore how the pandemic and lockdown in particular had impacted workplace culture and what the most recent barriers to gender balance could be.  The result? A report by My Confidence Matters, Rethinking Leadership Through a Gender Lens: New ways of working resulting from Covid.

These are a few of the key emerging themes: 

Value added

Distance does not always make the heart grow stronger, with women in particular feeling less valued than men while working remotely. Remote working has left many women feeling well on their own, stating they don’t have the same access to professional development as men or the environment to do their best work. Tellingly, it appears that women have to work harder to get their presence felt, finding it harder to get heard in virtual meetings than men. In line with the pre-Covid setting, leaders need to learn to recognise people who are deeply qualified but don’t shout the loudest.

Mindful leadership

What we have learnt is that leaders, although more physically distanced because of blurred home/work boundaries, are getting a more intimate insight into their employees lives and with that comes a greater responsibility for their wellbeing. 

The change in working patterns and rise of e-presenteeism brought on by the pandemic is leading to increased risk of employee mental health issues. Burnout, officially recognised in 2019 as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation, is a real issue and could impact years of progress in gender diversity.

Human touch

Humans are inherently social and this has hit home in the research findings. Remote working, for some, has meant feelings of isolation, a lack of connection and the right office equipment. There are implications for gender equality as people return to the workplace. Ensuring that those who remain working from home continue to be kept in the loop needs to be front and centre in a mixed workplace model.  

Digital paradox

There seems to be a digital paradox at play. The negative aspects of the always on, transparent ‘new normal’ is running in parallel with an increase in workplace empathy. The report suggests that, where there has been a change in leadership style, the level of understanding and support from managers has increased. There can be a direct link between compassionate leadership and profit growth and the good news is that the report suggests the pandemic has been a catalyst for these leadership behaviours.

The crisis represents an opportunity to kick-start a new gender balanced culture paradigm and the themes from the report go a long way to providing clues on how to do this. To ultimately create more human, inclusive and flexible cultures where women can flourish and everyone thrives.

Caroline Gosling is director of culture and engagement at Rubica