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A post-Covid workplace: How do we make sure no woman is left behind?

The impact of Covid-19 has sparked conversations across the globe about what the new normal might look like in the workplace going forward.

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Overnight, companies had to make quick decisions on how to cope with the crisis. For most companies, they had three options on the table: accept government support schemes, collapse, or adapt.

For almost half of the British workforce, their bosses chose to adapt and they found themselves working from home.

Prior to Covid-19 homeworking was rare - reserved as a luxury for those with extenuating circumstances. According to the Office of National Statistics, only 5% of employees worked from home regularly before the lockdown, and only a quarter worked from home sometimes.

While homeworking might have been on the horizon regardless, the pandemic certainly accelerated the speed at which it became normalised. Bosses were forced to skip the steps which would usually hinder the process of remote working - meetings about why it was necessary, how a lack of presence in the office might impact the team, technical considerations, issues around trust...

But the imminent impact of coronavirus meant there was no time to debate homeworking, and instead accept it as a way to survive.

The positive impact of working from home

After a year of working from home, many businesses have commented on the positive impacts it has had on employees and productivity. An increasing number of companies are announcing a permanent shift in the way they will work in a post-Covid world, with terms like 'virtual first' and 'hybrid working' becoming more commonplace.

From an employer's point of view, having remote workers invites top global talent and streamlines business growth.

Twitter was the first major U.S. company to make a public announcement in May 2020 about its permanent work-from-home plans, after the measures during the lockdown had been a success. The company hopes the new model will attract and retain talent, and give them greater ability to hire diverse and more affordable employees from all parts of the country.

JPMorgan Chase, an American investment banking company, have also said employees will from now on benefit from working at home for part of the week. Its Chief Operating Officer, Daniel Pinto, cited one of the reasons as being the need to attract the best talent in the very competitive financial recruitment market.

Some companies have also found that giving employees more autonomy and freedom improves morale and productivity.

File hosting company Dropbox, based in the U.S., has become a 'virtual first' company, meaning that remote work will be the primary experience for all employees. They found in an internal survey that most employees say they’re able to be productive at home - nearly 90%.

Similarly, English financial technology company Revolut conducted an internal survey which found that while teams have been working remotely, 92% of employees found that their individual productivity had not changed, or if there was a change it was positive. 80% of employees felt that team collaboration had not changed or had a positive impact, and 96% of employees considered that team performance was not negatively impacted, or experienced a positive change.

Moreover, having employees work from home means bosses can opt for office space that is smaller and less expensive, reducing the cost of utilities and rent. Companies can also save on office furniture, coffee, food and more; not to mention the rise of video conferencing meaning that businesses can save thousands on flights, hotels and expensive lunches.

From an employee's point of view, working remotely means they can reinvest their usual commuting time; save money on travelling; effectively manage their personal lives; feel less distracted by office chit-chat; create a work space that suits them; and have better overall work-life balance.

And while all of the above is beneficial to most people, for women in particular, remote working might create a more level playing field.

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In February 2021, The Female Lead unveiled its Women at Work research, looking into why women have still not achieved equal progression and pay in the workplace. The goal was to understand why women make certain career-shaping decisions, focusing on those in their mid-stage career, where female progression typically plateaus at the same time that male progression continues to soar.

One positive finding from the research was that the lockdown facilitated greater balance between men and women. There was more family and domestic work to be done, and the women’s partners, also working from home during the strict lockdown, were more available for support, including childcare.

However, global data from UN Women released in November 2020 showed that women are nonetheless doing significantly more domestic chores and family care, because of the impact of the pandemic.

"Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year," says UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia. "The care burden poses a real risk of reverting to 1950s gender stereotypes."

Though this data is alarming, The Female Lead's Women at Work research suggested there might be some advantages to be drawn from lockdown. The level of household work became more visible to male partners, who were also at home to witness what needed to be done. Hopefully this reality check can mark the start of a more balanced split of the domestic load in the future, particularly if homeworking is made available to all.

Enforcing remote work has also normalised flexibility. This is a big change for women who often have to move to part-time work, or give up work entirely, to fit around their parenting schedules.

The disruption of the Covid-19 crisis presents an opportunity for a paradigm shift in regard to the question: How do we move the diversity and gender equality mission forward?

Companies should now be putting policies and initiatives in place in response to this question.

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In an interview with the BBC, Melinda Gates, the Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, stated her views on the situation: “I hope Covid-19 forces us to confront how unsustainable the current arrangement is - and how much we all miss out on when women’s responsibilities at home limit their ability to contribute beyond it. The solutions lie with governments, employers, and families committed to doing things more equitably.”

So what are the practical steps that can be put in place to encourage a positive change?

Solution one: Ensure flexible working remains the new normal

One of the reasons women have a harder time advancing professionally is that they are much more likely than men to prioritise their family responsibilities over their careers.

The Women at Work report shows the most women-friendly companies were those in which people throughout the organisation, however lofty their position, also worked from home sometimes, or worked flexibly. Extending this practice would lead to more sustainable careers for all, without lowering the value of any employee.

Brian Armstrong, CEO of digital currency company Coinbase, says, "The solution is to embrace the hybrid state and give it the best chance of success by turning your company into a remote-first culture. Remote-first means there is no disadvantage to working at home versus in-office. All employees have the same experience."

"If you don’t make the culture remote-first, you create a prisoner’s dilemma that encourages people to keep coming into offices."

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Ian Stewart, Chief Economist at Deloitte says: “A large-scale shift could boost the workforce enormously, opening up opportunities for those who have traditionally had fewer chances with a stricter five day pattern of office working, such as parents, disabled workers and older staff. Such a move would bring benefits for those workers and the wider economy.”

We also need to urge the government to review and strengthen the statutory Right to Request Flexible Working, including reviewing the length of time employers currently have to consider requests.

Jane van Zyl, Chief Executive of Working Families, a UK work-life balance charity, says: “It is vital that the government acts to ensure that the progress made around flexible working during lockdown is extended, not reversed, for all parents, and that employers can harness the increases in productivity, talent attraction, and diversity that flexible working will bring to the UK economy. We simply can’t go back to a time where long hours and being the last person in the office are seen as a mark of success.”

Solution two: Make diversity and inclusion in the workplace a priority

The Women at Work research showed that women carry a special mental load both in the home and in the workplace, expecting themselves and being expected by others, to champion other women and to play a strong part in diversity initiatives. While the participants in the Women at Work research embraced this role, and felt energised by it, research suggests that many women find this a burden in terms both of time and of risk to their reputation as a congenial worker.

Moreover, this is often a role that is undertaken without pay. There is new urgency in assuring diversity and inclusion; as a result, any work that is done in these areas needs to be assessed and rewarded and shared among all workers.

Including more white men in this role would signal that diversity is now seen as an urgent, and indeed mainstream issue. In many organisations, everyone is already on board, even though the way forward is not always clear.

Furthermore, every decision-making process within a company must be transparent and informed by diverse representation.

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Cheryl Cole, Editor of DiversityQ, says: "Boards must recognise the fault lines between ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups that tend to be accentuated under pressure. If someone is on the periphery of decision-making, it is very difficult for them to influence the outcome. This is why minorities can often be on the wrong side of decision-making - a key reason as to why women and working parents came off second-best in the last downturn, and have been particularly impacted this year too."

Similarly, Chris Parke, CEO at diversity consultancy Talking Talent, says: “I would argue there is no better generation than the young, who are ‘digital natives’, to support many of the market accelerators we are observing. It will be a dangerous move to leave them out of any strategic resource re-alignment over the coming months!”

“The same goes for having a lack of ethnic minorities, women, young people and, indeed, any characteristic that would result in an organisation being unable to reflect the societies, clients, and consumers they are there to represent. This is what ultimately leads to a lack of diverse thinking.”

Solution three: Reintroduce Gender Pay Gap reporting

Findings from the Women at Work research showed that an ‘unentitled mindset’ in women persists at the pay negotiation table.

One highly specific example of internalised bias is lack of confidence in negotiating pay increases and promotion. Participants of the study described an ‘unentitled mindset’, whereby their workplace experience leaves them feeling unsure of their entitlement to promotion or increased pay.

Women also expended significant energy considering whether their case was watertight, before making requests, and they reported feeling unsure of the rules of negotiation or the parameters of success.

The latest statistics into the Gender Pay Gap from the ONS showed that the GPG among all employees was 15.5% in 2020, which means that on average women were paid approximately 84p for every £1 men were paid.

Gender Pay Gap reporting must not see any more delays so that disparities in pay can be highlighted and resolved within companies.

Once the disparities have been highlighted, training and development are needed on both sides to understand and change the context in which promotion and pay raises are discussed.

The UK government’s decision to put mandatory Gender Pay Gap reporting under review for a second year poses a significant threat to the progress for all women that so many have fought for over decades.

Women in Advertising and Communication Leadership (WACL) say: "The evidence tells us that having a strategy in place to improve a company's Gender Pay Gap, galvanised by mandatory GPG reporting, can improve overall company performance, and help deliver against vital talent and diversity and inclusion strategies. We need to increase reporting to include ethnicity and disability, not remove the one set of reports we have."

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has confirmed that businesses will now have until 5 October 2021 to submit their latest data before any action is taken against them. However, companies can and should voluntarily conduct their own GPG report, to show that they are committed to ending unequal pay.

Solution four: Place emphasis on the opportunities for employee progression

The Women at Work research showed that one big reason women experience an 'unentitled mindset' was because of the bias they suffer when returning from maternity leave. This directly led to lower expectations of a woman’s contributions to the firm, commitment and ability to take on responsibilities and challenges.

Women who had experienced this bias themselves and those who did not have children, but observed other women suffer this bias, saw this as a significant impediment to career progress. This issue was further exacerbated by a lack of visible senior working mothers ‘making it work’ which had a disabling effect on younger childless females, pregnant mothers and recent returners.

Cambridge Psychologist Dr Terri Apter, Author of the Women at Work research, recommends companies enable women to upskill, to level the playing field when they are faced with persistent and embedded issues.

Teresa Hopke, CEO at Talking Talent, says: “Now is the time to double down and invest in supporting women employees so they feel it’s possible to stay. I’m not just talking to those in senior leadership; if you lead any kind of team, project or initiative, then you’re an influencer here.”

“For now, that means it’s still crucial for organisations to invest in women-centric leadership coaching—not just to check a box, but to drive real solutions that create authentic transformation and culture change, invest in people and protect talent pipelines as a result.”

Hopke believes female-specific leadership programs offer an opportunity for employers to show they are willing to invest in women in their organisation. “There’s no excuse not to champion women - and the businesses that do will realise the proven bottom-line and culture benefits as a result.”

The unusual circumstances of Covid-19 should be considered an opportunity by all employers to make significant progress on diversity and gender equality. By creating an action plan and implementing clear policies and initiatives, companies worldwide can truly change the workplace, for women, for the better.

If there's to be one silver lining to the global pandemic, let it be that we come out the other side a more positive, fair and equal society.

By Holly Droy, Content Creator at The Female Lead


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