International Women’s Day is the perfect time to celebrate all of the successes achieved by women in the workplace but the pandemic is having a disproportional impact on female employment

Posted 09/03/2021 : By: Kathryn Pratt

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to cause long-term harm to gender diversity in the workplace, with progress for women in work reverting to 2017 levels by the end of 2021, according to PWC’s Women in Work Index, which reports female economic empowerment across 33 OECD countries.

For almost a decade, all countries across the OECD made consistent progress towards women’s economic empowerment. However, due to the socio-economic side effects of the pandemic, this trend will now be reversed. The PWC’s Index finds it will begin to recover in 2022 but in order to undo the damage caused by COVID-19 to women in work by 2030, progress towards gender equality needs to be twice as fast as its historical rate.

Why is COVID-19 affecting female employment more than men?

The pandemic has hardest hit sectors such as retail, restaurants, hotels, tourism, personal services and arts and leisure services. Thousands of workers within these sectors have been furloughed or laid off due to crisis - all with high female employment. This is in addition to the existing issue of gender inequalities in society.

The pandemic has also exacerbated the situation for women with caring responsibilities. A study by the London School of Economics has found that women are more likely to take on the homeschooling, housework, and other unseen burdens that tend to fall disproportionately between men and women, which inevitably has a direct impact on their ability to work. Another report by Carers UK found that 58% of unpaid carers are women, and women are more likely to reduce their working hours to take care of children.

What steps can employers take to protect gender equality?

1. Communication

At this stage in the pandemic, employers should be aware of which employees are facing additional challenges in balancing work and personal responsibilities such as childcare or caring for older relatives. Check-in with these employees at regular intervals to make sure that any agreed modifications to their role are still working for them or whether other support is needed. The pandemic has brought with it numerous factors that can have a detrimental impact on job performance, such as childcare and caring responsibilities, mental health and financial pressures. Employers should be mindful of this during such check-ins and not shy away from conversations with employees about how they are coping.

2. Be flexible

Support employees who have requested flexible working during the pandemic and develop work schedules to allow for home-schooling or other caring responsibilities. Subsequently, employees in this position may also need to reduce their workload. Employers may consider options such as redistributing responsibilities, delaying projects, or re-prioritising work streams, all of which should be consulted with employees. Taking these steps can help alleviate the increased rates of anxiety we are seeing during this pandemic and help prevent burnout. 

3. Consider the organisations wider approach to flexible working

The pandemic has presented an opportunity for employers to assess their approach to flexible working on a whole. Many employers are now aware of how possible it is to work from home effectively and the personal benefits that come with it through improved work-life balance. Employers can now see how an approach that focuses on delivery and achievement rather than hours worked or being physically present in the office works in practice. 

4. Furlough

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme allows employers to furlough staff who have caring responsibilities resulting from COVID-19 including employees that need to look after children. Employers can claim back 80% of staff salaries up to £2500 a month. Furlough can be flexible – for example, allowing staff to simply reduce their hours, and only claiming furlough support for those hours they do not work. For further information on the scheme, please see our Ultimate Furlough FAQs.

5. Address domestic abuse

The Covid-19 lockdowns have resulted in a significant increase in violence and abuse against women. Employers should make clear what support is available if an employee is suffering from domestic abuse and should develop a policy that sets out the company’s commitment to the issue, common signs of domestic abuse and the support available for employees. Employers should also ensure that managers are able to spot the signs of domestic abuse and are appropriately trained in responding to and supporting employees in these situations. The Business in Community updated toolkit for employers on domestic abuse can help employers to ensure they are providing staff with the right support.

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