Why Covid has been a serious setback for gender equality at work

Arran Heal explores whether the pandemic is reversing progress – or has simply exposed the reality of workplace prejudices beneath the corporate position statements

Research into working lives under the Covid regime has proven what most of us have already guessed or seen for ourselves: it’s working women who have shouldered the majority of burdens from lockdown living.

In LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Index, 73 per cent of women reported feeling work-related stress, compared with 57 per cent of men. Women have also been feeling more vulnerable in their careers, with 45 per cent increasing the amount of time searching for their next job or project (compared to 33 per cent of men). 

A further 37 per cent of women spent more time working during non-work hours than last year (compared to 29 per cent of men). Women also took less time off: 55 per cent said they had used less holiday, as opposed to 46 per cent of men.

Every way you look at it, women have come off worse. And all because of old, ingrained stereotypes, which the past 50 years of social change have failed to wholly replace. There are still the same assumptions that childcare, homeschooling and caring for family members who need support are all part of the woman’s role – whether both parents are working or not. 

Women feel they ‘have to do it’, often because the employers of fathers aren’t being as flexible in allowing them to take time off for homeschooling. Employers know what’s happening and the implications for work performance, which explains why the LinkedIn figures also suggest a trend for lower hiring rates among women. 

Working mums, and women over 30 in general, have been the worst affected by pandemic-related redundancies and job shortages. A new study commissioned by employment law firm Slater and Gordon found that one in 10 people who had been made redundant believed it was because they were pregnant or intended to start a family. In this way, businesses employing women can come to feel increasingly like they are subsidising other firms that mostly employ men.

So crisis conditions are reversing progress on gender equality, causing old prejudices and problems to resurface – or perhaps just exposing the reality of workplace attitudes beneath corporate position statements. 

While HR professionals can’t overturn cultural assumptions overnight, they can make sure they ‘get’ what’s been happening, and make sure the particular challenges of female staff are widely understood and appreciated. On this basis, employers should be more flexible, make sure health and wellbeing is a priority, and ensure the right kinds of support are available to mitigate against the imbalances in the burden of stress.

Employers of fathers in particular should feel the responsibility to be proactive in understanding the needs of families as a whole, and be flexible enough to ensure fathers can be more involved in providing support, sharing the burden of responsibility with the employers of women. So should employers of women push back and ask ‘what’s your husband’s employer doing to help in this situation?’ 

This is where an open workplace culture of talking and listening is so important. Where there is trust that management will listen and have empathy, there is the chance for more women to speak up and challenge attitudes. 

In this way HR can avoid a new root cause of festering grievances, conflict, absence and the loss of experienced staff. When people feel able to talk openly about issues, when managers and staff in general have the skills to handle difficult conversations, that’s when what originated as relatively minor issues can be resolved without conflict.

With lockdown rolling on and extended periods of disruption and uncertainty to come, the eventual return to normality will bring its own challenges. Staff will finally come to the stage when they’re looking back and reflecting on their experience, including the heightening of inequalities. 

With more potential for conflict, it’s a threat and an opportunity for HR to look again at attitudes to parents, and to make sure the ground lost on gender equality during the pandemic is recovered and further progress made.

Arran Heal is managing director of CMP