How Covid-19 has affected gender imbalance in the workplace

The pandemic’s effect on gender imbalance in the workplace can be seen as a tale of two halves. As Covid-19 necessitated the UK’s first national lockdown, women were disproportionately affected when it came to work.

The Fawcett Society, a charity campaigning for gender equality, found in a report that one in three working mothers have lost work or hours to childcare issues during the pandemic. That number rises yet further for BAME working mothers. However, the acceleration of flexible working policies as standard will give access to work to a far greater number of women that have historically struggled to work due to caring responsibilities. In the future will we be able to harness the full potential of an entire section of society that has been hitherto neglected?

LinkedIn data has shown an alarming drop in the share of women among new hires, beginning in February and reaching its lowest point in May of around 3% under the figures recorded over the same period in 2019. From there, as businesses finessed their remote working arrangements, we see a sharp upwards trajectory, reaching positive figures in June and generally continuing to rise as the year progressed. In other words, in the second half of 2020 the share of women among new hires increased year on year. WaveTrackR data has shown that, despite a third UK lockdown, jobs are rising month on month, increasing the opportunities for women, particularly as restrictions dictate that, if possible, they will currently be remote.  

This sudden recovery is likely to be inextricably linked to an increase in flexible work policies offered by companies, just as the drop at the start of lockdown was a reflection of inequalities that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Women tend to bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities and were therefore heavily burdened when schools shut and elderly relatives started to shield. It is hardly surprising that data from the same LinkedIn report found that women were 20% more likely than men to state flexible working as a top priority when searching for a new job. Long-term covid-related change could also come from the fact that, according to an Institute for Fiscal Studies survey, fathers covered an average of nearly double the hours of childcare than pre-pandemic during the first lockdown. We may see permanent societal changes, with parents sharing childcare and other domestic responsibilities to a greater extent.  

Women in top leadership roles in European countries is also on the rise, even if the majority of top-level jobs continue to be held by men. The Gender Diversity Index, published by non-profit European Women on Boards, found that women held 35% of board seats in the 668 listed companies across the 18 European countries that were analysed. That’s a 2% increase compared to 2019 but clearly, there is still a long way to go. A LinkedIn survey on job confidence conducted at the end of 2020 revealed that women are less than half as likely to be confident about their career progression as men, scoring 7 compared to 22 for men. And yet diversity at the top has been proven in countless reports to increase business profitability. For example, a report conducted by gender and diversity consultancy The Pipeline found that FTSE 350 companies with executive committees featuring more than 33% women have a net profit margin over ten times greater than those with no women at this level.

As the government builds back, it is vital that childcare and social care infrastructures are invested in and that paid leave for fathers is improved to enable parents to share leave after the birth of a baby. There are a number of ways that employers and recruiters can encourage gender diversity too. Flexible working options, where possible, are incredibly important, as is ensuring you have diverse recruiting processes in place and switching focus from experience and culture to skills (both hard and soft) and value add. Not only will this expand your talent pool, it will help to create workplaces that fizz with the innovation, alternative experiences and diversity of thought that truly diverse teams bring to businesses.   

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