Is the pandemic making the workplace gender gap worse?
- Credit: ARCHANT
The inequality chasm between men and women in the workplace is set to widen as a result of the pandemic, experts have warned.
The evidence is already beginning to come to light.
Management consultancy McKinsey found that although women make up 39pc of the global workforce, 54pc of jobs lost because of the virus were positions held by women.
Throughout the pandemic women in East Anglia have been more likely to take furlough – meaning many automatically saw their pay reduced by a fifth.
But has the fallout from the pandemic laid bare some areas for improvement?
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Dr Ayobami Ilori is an applied macroeconomist working for the Open University, and said: “We saw inequality worsen during the pandemic for a range of reasons. The first is that women are more likely to take on more childcare responsibilities, so they were more likely to take furlough.
“Industries which have more of a female workforce were also among the worst to be hit – hospitality and the service sector. This meant that they could not work even if they wanted to – they had to take furlough.
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“Not only does furlough mean reduced pay, it also means no increase in wages or promotions for perhaps the best part of two years. So two people who started at the same level before the pandemic, one may take furlough and be on the scheme even until September this year, and in that period of time loses out on two annual reviews.
“You look at this over a lifetime and that will have long-lasting impacts on inequality.”
He added: “On top of this men are also arguably more likely to keep their jobs even in sectors worst-hit for women. For example in hospitality a boss may choose to keep a man on because he can lift and load the beers, as well as doing serving and managing crowds.
“We also know that a lot of the jobs which became available during the pandemic were occupied by men – for example delivery driving.
“Now neither of these is because a man is more qualified – but it also often comes down to the fact that men feel pressure to go out and earn money where their partner may take on more of the unpaid work.”
He said that gender pay reports will provide the evidence to begin pushing for measures to combat inequality.
He said: “Until we see both gender pay break downs and regional break downs we won’t know the true extent of the problem.”
But, he said, serious gains could be made if levelling up regions was made a priority: “It’s not necessarily a case of focusing on one issue – if we level up entire regions we’ll see the worst of the inequality addressed because women tend to have the jobs in sectors worst impacted.”
Andy Wood, chief executive of Southwold-based brewery and pub chain Adnams, said he did not believe distance working post-pandemic was a “silver bullet” for curing gender imbalance within the workplace.
He said: “If the organisation is culturally progressive, and sees real benefit in having a diverse set of opinions from its people, then absolutely, this is going to make it easier.
“If the culture is regressive. And it wants to retain power in a small number of individuals, then actually, the technology can be used to work that way as well.
“So, I think it all comes back to the culture of the organisation.”
Laura van Ree is the founder of Not For Profit Law a community interest company offering legal services founded in Norwich during lockdown.
Ms van Ree said: “I work flexibly and it works brilliantly for me – but it needs to work across the board for it to address existing imbalances.
“We know women do a greater share of child care and unpaid labour around the house. My concern would be that working flexibly, whilst in theory is great for helping women to juggle these things, means more women take up the offer to work from home whilst men continue going into the office.
“As a result women become less visible and might lose out on opportunities as they are less seen by managers in charge of promotions and pay rises.
“Providing flexible working options is absolutely better than not providing the option, but it does need to be handled so as to not exacerbate existing issues.”
A single mum to a five-year-old daughter, Ms van Ree added that her clients more often than not appreciate the flexible approach.
She said: “I think the pandemic has made people more human – with limited social interaction for so long we value the opportunities we have to speak to people, and inevitably do so on a more personal level. This has to some extent changed the dynamic between professionals and their clients, for the better in my view.
“It gives my clients a bit more flexibility and means I can work in the evenings or weekends on things which aren’t time-sensitive.
“I know, and my clients know, they’re still getting a high level of service when they need it, but it’s a more adaptable and personal approach.”
Bridget McIntyre has held senior positions across some of the UK’s largest blue chip companies, including being the UK chief executive of RSA Insurance and senior roles at Norwich-based Aviva – making her one of only 16 women to be a FTSE 100 executive director at the time.
She said that at the beginning of her business career there was an expectation for employees to be in the office at all times.
“I worked through in the 80s and 90s, when presenteeism was massive,” she said. “I think this crisis has really changed it.
“I’m optimistic that the pandemic will help the gender balance in the workplace, and bring more flexibility to how we can work.”
But, she added, there was some onus on employees to speak out for what they wanted.
She said: “When I was working as a chief executive, I gave both men and women flexibility about what times they were times of working.
“I used to get very annoyed if people miss their children’s events. But people often never spoke out about what they wanted, they just accepted it.
“I would really encourage people to speak out about what they want. Work out personally what you want and speak up for that — not just assume you can’t do it.
“If you’re given flexibility, don’t take advantage.
“See it as an opportunity to look at how you can do your work.”
However, Mrs McIntyre said that the decreased visibility caused by distance working could make sexist attitudes within the workplace worse.
She said: “You can get that on a phone call, you can get that on a zoom call. I think that’s about the culture of the organisation. And that is something that has to be led from the top.”