What can the Covid crisis teach us about gender equality?

The pandemic has blurred the boundaries between personal and work life, and this has disadvantaged some women, says Joy Burnford

What a difference eight months makes. If we had been discussing the heady task of creating gender-balanced work environments, where women (and men) can flourish, remote and flexible working would have been front and centre. Fast forward a few months and the pipe dream of widespread, universal remote working has materialised at the speed of light and yet, it appears, for some women, we are further away than ever from the end goal.  

Remote working, rather than being the work balance holy grail, for many women it has been disabling from a functional, developmental and wellbeing perspective. Harvard Business Review recently reported that, during the pandemic, women's jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable compared to men’s. Not altogether surprising when you consider the burden of unpaid care, which increased during the pandemic, falls disproportionately on women. 

What we do know is that gender balance can be key to corporate financial success. It is therefore vital that companies do not regress and instead use this time to listen and learn how to create a more gender-balanced culture, where women can function, flourish and, most importantly, remain.

With that in mind, we set out to dig deep, sweat the nuances and explore how Covid-19 had impacted people’s work environment and what we could learn to rebuild better. The result? Rethinking leadership through a gender lens: New ways of working resulting from Covid. The full report can be viewed here, but here are a few key emerging themes:

Mind over matter

What we have learned is that the employer-employee relationship has changed for good. Remote working has introduced an always-on Big Brother feeling of e-presenteeism, and with that comes a greater responsibility for staff mental wellbeing. Caring responsibilities, isolation and a lack of boundaries between work and home has meant employees’ health and wellbeing has been significantly challenged. 

Women do an average of 75 per cent of the world’s unpaid care work and Covid-19 has disproportionately increased the amount of time women spend on domestic responsibilities, according to research by King's College London. Burnout, officially recognised in 2019 as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization, is a real issue and could impact years of progress in gender diversity. 

Ultimately, blurred home-life boundaries mean that people managers and leaders see the whole person and that means we are now literally responsible for the mind, as well as matter, of our people.

Not so splendid isolation

Remote, but just not too remote, seemed to be another important message coming out of the research. People value flexible working above sole office or home working but, for some, remote working has meant feelings of isolation, and a lack of connection and the right office equipment. In addition, a perceived lack of connection or poor communication seemed to directly affect people’s feeling of being valued. There are implications for wellbeing and communication parity as we move to mixed workplace models.

Accelerated empathy

There has been much talk of the benefits of soft skills, empathy and compassionate leadership in a corporate setting. The good news, according to our research, is that the pandemic seems to have accelerated this sentiment. From both a developmental and wellbeing standpoint, people feel Covid-19 has been a catalyst for these leadership behaviours. The crisis therefore represents an opportunity – to continue to enable leadership that is more human and gender literate and that benefits everyone.

There is no doubt that recovery presents challenges for leaders and people managers, but the themes from the report suggest there is an opportunity to rethink the future and design a new gender-balanced paradigm.

Joy Burnford is founder and director of My Confidence Matters