Women’s careers in the post-Covid world: opportunity or setback?
Covid-19 abruptly transformed working lives. For years, businesses had contemplated flexible working measures, but had only partially implemented them. Then the pandemic came along and, through sheer necessity, instantly dismantled institutional barriers to flexible working such as lack of C-suite buy-in or brittle HR policies. Now, a year and a half down the line, for many people working from home has become the norm.
A more flexible working culture has long been touted as a benefit to women and parents in the workplace. But, in the wake of Covid, has this been borne out in reality? More women than men, have lost their jobs globally (5% of all employed women v 3.9% of all employed men) and the industries with more women (such as the consumer sector, not-for-profit and media and communications) are seeing a greater loss of roles. Women’s appointments to senior leadership roles have been reversed, in some cases eroding the progress of the last couple of years.
One study by McKinsey showed that during the pandemic there has been marked increase in women considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether, with the greatest impact being on women in senior management, Black women and women with young children. Another study by the Universities of Kent and Birmingham showed working mothers reportedly doing 3.7 hours of working in the evening, up from 2.4 before the pandemic, whereas men’s evening work had increased much less.
So, there is cause for concern. As ever, women are spending more time on housework and childcare than men, and data suggests covid-19 has exacerbated existing gender inequalities, with the double burden of paid and unpaid work increasing during the pandemic, creating more stress and job instability.
Each year the World Economic Forum measures the gap in gender equality around the world. They recently estimated that, at current rates of change, we’re 135 years away from closing the gender gap globally. This means progress towards gender equality has already been set back by a generation and that, at the current trajectory, we are at least a worrying four generations away from achieving gender equality.
As businesses downsize office space and consider hybrid working models, we are at risk of a segregated post-Covid workforce, with two tiers of workers: office-based and home-based. With many men and young people possibly keen to get back to the office and many women, single parents, carers and people with health problems and disabilities potentially wanting (or having no alternative) to working from home, organisations will need to be aware of the difference in visibility and networking opportunities for home-based workers, and will need to anticipate these shifts and take measures to offset them.
Here’s what I propose.
1 – Understand the issue and raise awareness
Employers must adapt their expectations to meet the reality of work in the post-Covid world. And that starts with understanding. With new working styles come new barriers to women’s career progression.
Many aspects of career advancement are invisible, strengthened by unconscious assumptions. For example, an employee choosing to not immediately return to the office when given the choice or having children in the background during video meetings can lead to an unconscious assumption that they’re less committed to their work.
It is essential therefore that senior leaders fully understand how women (and more broadly, other disadvantaged groups) are perceived in the workplace. Listening exercises, in the form of focus groups or interviews or simple surveys, can be helpful in raising awareness of the perceptions in the workplace. This data can provide a strong foundation for identifying meaningful actions to counter any issues. Some ideas are suggested below.
2 – Reassess performance criteria to reflect the realities of home working
As our working lives change, the criteria we use to measure success need to keep up. A Deloitte study of working women’s lives during the pandemic showed that more than half reported increased childcare and household responsibilities, while one third reported increased work as well. This has led to increased reports of exhaustion and burnout.
More than a year into the pandemic, we know that home working is a viable long-term solution for many roles. Managers should reassess the goals and performance criteria set prior to the pandemic, and make sure they are still fit for purpose for men and women. Active participation in a project doesn’t necessarily require a physical presence, for example. Reviewing pre-pandemic performance criteria to ensure measures are aligned with what is realistically achievable can help to relieve stress and ultimately improve productivity.
3 – Make flexible working actually flexible
In order for employees to thrive, managers need to reimagine the working week. When home workers have parental or caring responsibilities, for example, managers should be aware of “crunch” times or dates. Being flexible on working hours and allowing earlier or later start and finish times could go a long way to redress disparities between home and office workers. So could allowing for the flexibility to make doctor’s appointments, prepare children for new school terms, etc.
Managers should be clear about which meetings are mandatory or optional and, as companies rethink their real estate footprint and physical office space, they should build hybrid meeting options into their plans. Equipping workplaces with rooms and technology that allow both in-person and virtual participation, will allow both home and office workers to equally and fairly participate in meetings. It will also mean that the cost of participation isn’t half a day’s travel to the office and back for an hour of productive face time.
One major driver of employee exhaustion is the ‘always on’ phenomenon, the constant blurring of work and leisure time. When working from home with extra household responsibilities in the mix, and broadband facilitating around-the-clock availability, women more so than men carry the double burden of paid and unpaid work and are vulnerable to burn-out and stress.
It’s incumbent on managers to set healthy boundaries around work, and to draw the line under communication outside of normal office hours, limiting the number of emails and messages. Managers should role model switching off and enforce windows of unavailability as a healthy and important boundary for all.
4 – Encourage informal interaction
Remote working can be just as efficient as working in an office in terms of getting core tasks done, but what about those times you learned something that’s helped with your work from just chatting to colleagues in the office? The spontaneity of workplace social interactions can lead to unexpected solutions and fresh ideas. Informal friendships and alliances can also be very important to career advancement.
With many digital natives in the workforce who are used to communicating via social media platforms, collaboration tools like Slack or Teams are a great way to encourage informal or “watercooler” chat – it’s just a matter of setting up a channel. If you want to take things a step further, plenty of teams have successfully organised Zoom socials and cocktail hours. Even a 15-minute daily stand-up where people can check in with each other encourages a feeling of sociality.
Managers should also take time to check in on their remote workers. This could involve leaving free time for a catch-up at the end of meetings, or organising regular 1-2-1s, so employees can informally chat to their managers.
5 – Walk the walk
As I’ve already mentioned, flexible working practices can be of great potential advantage to workers, boosting productivity, but only if they take advantage of it. To avoid creating any stigma around flexible working or the use of benefits such as extra childcare days, senior leaders should be seen to take advantage of these opportunities themselves. A lawyer contact of mine reflected recently his nervousness about taking 4 months paid parental leave after the birth of his son. Yet once he did he was buoyed by the gratitude of a woman colleague who thanked him for helping to break down the gender stereotypes and sigma of extended parental leave.
Such examples encourage greater uptake of these opportunities and help to normalise time out for family and caring responsibilities for both men and women.
Pre-pandemic, our work norms have remained largely unchanged from those of the second industrial revolution. The notion that work fits neatly into a Monday – Friday, daylight hours arrangement, performed in one physical location is obsolete. Yet despite this, the vast majority of organisations continue to structure work arrangements in this way.
In the last year, organisations have needed to rapidly adopt new working measures, such as more flexibility over working hours and location, and the use of video conferencing and collaborative apps.
Indeed, many of these changes were a long time coming and represent an acceleration of existing trends in the world of work. Pre-pandemic, many organisations had already experimented with flexible working. There were many compelling reasons for employees to work from home for some portion of the week, including: reducing demand on office space and overhead costs; meeting sustainability targets through the reduction of business travel and swapping in-person meetings for video calls; and, increasingly, attracting and retaining talent, boosting productivity and preventing burnout.
We now have a choice. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine the very fabric of our working lives, to question long-held assumptions about presenteeism and the nature of the workplace, and to reshape organisations to better suit a 21st century workforce. But as we rebuild, it’s essential we not lose hard-won gains for women in the workplace or inadvertently create a segregated, two-tier workforce.
Now is the time for each of us to push hard to redefine working norms and build better, healthier and more productive workplaces that work for all employees. There is no room for complacency. We need to act now before the old norms begin to re-establish themselves.
Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.
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 2021 World Economic Forum, Gender Gap Report
 2020 McKinsey, Women in the workplace
 2021 New Statesman, Inside Covid-19’s “lost year” for women at work
 2020 Deloitte, Understanding the pandemic’s impact on working women
 2020 McKinsey, Women in the workplace
 2018 Deloitte, The rise of the social enterprise