One thing seems consistent throughout this crisis so far – one day you feel energetic, hopeful, happy, in the mood to bake, the next you feel desolate and refuse to leave bed except to eat more banana bread. When it comes to how Covid-19 is affecting women at work, it’s feels like a similar seesaw: there are worrying signs, but also great cause for hope.
First of all, if anyone needs convincing that women are at the coalface of this crisis – take a quick snapshot of the gender divide in the UK healthcare sector. Women make up more than 75% of all NHS staff and 89% of all nurses and health visitors. While 45% of doctors in the UK are female, women are significantly under-represented in some specialities, particularly surgery, and there are still very few women in senior clinical academic positions. As NHS and Medical Women’s Federation statistics show, despite the vital role women play in healthcare, they continue to be in the minority in top-earning roles, and while there are signs the gender pay gap between men and women in medicine is closing, it’s happening at a glacial pace.
If you still don’t buy it, take an entirely different sector (retail) and an entirely different country (the US) and you’ll see women in ‘essential’ roles (essential, yet still low paid) being worst hit again – and it’s women of colour being hit hardest.
Even in academia there’s anecdotal evidence that women are being impacted disproportionately. In late April, The Lily wrote about a worrying trend spotted by female academics. “Women academics seem to be submitting fewer papers during coronavirus”, read the headline. An editor said she has “never seen anything like it” referring to the steep drop-off in submissions from women in the UK and US. (Submissions by men are up.)
There is real cause for concern. While it’s not possible to have a full, data-backed global picture of the damage Covid-19 is doing to women at work at this stage, all the evidence we have points the same way. Team this with the fact we know there are still pitifully few women on boards; that in every country in the world, women continue to be paid less for comparable work than men; and that we are less likely to have savings and investments for retirement; and you can see why women are worried about what this virus could do to the decades of progress won through hard slog.
But if anyone thinks women are going to take this lying down, they couldn’t be more wrong.
There is no doubt the crisis is shaking us up, but some welcome the chance to do things differently. Half of AllBright members surveyed said coronavirus has directly impacted their jobs (33% have taken reduced hours/a pay cut, 9% have been furloughed and 8% have lost their jobs). On the flip side, 61% are using lockdown to reconsider their career or try something they’ve always wanted to do, and 65% said they are using this time to upskill, learn and self-improve.
When coronavirus hit, self-employed celebrity personal trainer Monique Eastwood, 53, had to adapt fast. “Within 24 hours of lockdown I had to set up my whole business online. I needed to offer existing clients a way to train as most of them had already paid for sessions.” Zoom meant she could offer classes virtually. While there have been technology obstacles (overcome thanks to her 24-year-old daughter), Eastwood’s online classes are drawing bigger crowds by the day, with new clients coming from all over the world.
“The biggest daily stress I have is worrying about my elderly parents living abroad,” she says, “and, of course, the financial side. My husband and I are both self-employed.” Yet Eastwood is positive about the future. “I’m very hopeful my business will survive in a more exciting, challenging way.”
Gina Unterhalter, 37, is mindset mentor, career and business coach. She’s used to working from home, but add sharing the workspace with her husband and looking after a toddler and four-month-old baby, and you could forgive her for feeling overwhelmed. The funny thing is she’s not, “Coronavirus shook me, but my instinct was to step up, lead and serve among all the panic. I was determined that neither me nor the incredible women I work with succumb to fear and lose sight of what they have been working towards.
To juggle her responsibilities, she and her husband share a diary and implement structure to their days. It’s called for “a lot of open and honest communication about what is and isn't working”, but her coaching workshops are now reaching hundreds of people in one session. That’s not’s to sugar-coat – there have been moments of “grief, fear, stress and worry”, she admits, especially about her parents, who are over 70.
Yet Unterhalter sees promise for working women. “We will never go back to ‘normal’. I think how we capitalise from this will determine our success. We have an opportunity to step up as aligned, resilient and strong female leaders who no longer bow to the old patriarchal stories that used to overshadow our careers.”
While the fact so many are upskilling is heartening, It’s important we don’t load more pressure on women right now. We are reminded to “make time for ourselves”, but as one young entrepreneur told me, “That’s not realistic if you have a two-year-old clinging to your neck while you cling to your small business that has lost 80% of its revenue in a month.”
Pepita Torbrand is a chartered psychologist and director of Coaching4Schools. She cautions, “Social media seems to be full of working mums coming up with innovative home-schooling ideas and ways to entertain the kids, while simultaneously putting in a full workday and whipping up lockdown suppers each evening. For most of us this is wholly unrealistic.” Instead of holding yourself to impossible standards, she implores women not to beat themselves up, “The last thing any of us should be feeling at the moment is guilt.”
Across the world, female leaders have earnt praise for decisive, compassionate leading during the pandemic, from Germany’s Angela Merkel to New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen.
Caroline Fairchild, LinkedIn editor-at-large, is based in New York City. A former business reporter at Fortune magazine, Fairchild is an expert on the future of women and diversity in the workplace. Over the past eight weeks she has had dozens of conversations with CEOs and has seen a shift in what we consider to be successful leadership.
“Think back to the strong, stoic Mad Men era,” she says, “you can’t lead like that in a global pandemic.” Fairchild believes the skills and traits that are “typically skewed towards women”, such as empathy, transparency, an ability to show emotion and be responsive – will be in demand coming out of this.
“The best managers are changing the way they lead. We have to have transparent conversations. Every manager with a remote team should be asking, ‘How is your family doing? How are you doing? How is homeschooling going? Do we need to be more flexible with our hours?’ You’ll see the companies that come out of this best will be the ones that led empathetically.” Those who fail to adapt and support employees and parents, Fairchild predicts, will see talent leave.
To test this theory, I talked to Karen Stacey, CEO of cinema advertising business, DCM. It’s an unprecedented time in her industry and Stacey has had to furlough her team, but she’s managing, supporting and – like so many – cracking on. She tells me she’s always cared more about output than input, but the crisis has changed her view of flexible working “180 degrees”. “It’s a real eye-opener,” she explains. “We’ve proved we can work from any distance.” Stacey, who has a daughter, says she was always on board with flexible working, but on a rota basis, so one person takes Monday, another Tuesday… Now she feels differently. “People can work from anywhere and I’m fine with everyone having the same days.” While technology has shown we can work remotely all the time, Stacey says one thing it can’t make up for is face-to-face interaction. It’s something she misses terribly and when all her team are back together, she’ll make it count.
Mandu Reid is the leader of the Women’s Equality Party in the UK and a beacon of hope for many. She says the government’s undoing in this crisis has been its lack of representation for women and people of different backgrounds. “Lack of diverse experience and thinking in key roles hasn’t helped them at all.”
Still, she is cautiously optimistic. “On one hand the epidemic has accelerated an awareness that it’s possible for people to work flexibly and for more to work from home. If employers have been resistant in the past, their objections have been leapfrogged – so that’s good for women. But as the economy recovers, women could be expected to do even more in relation to jobs, childcare and other unpaid caring responsibilities. I’m fearful men’s jobs will be prioritised.”
With so many nurseries and childcare providers out of business, there’s another issue on the horizon. “In heterosexual couples, if childcare is unavailable or more expensive, it might mean [women] have to make the sacrifice… We have to have negotiations and not just have women do that work as a default. When the economy starts to crank back up again corporations are going to want to get to optimal productivity asap. One of the ways to do that is to recognise how screwed the childcare system is and start supporting parents – dads and mums.”
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s findings show 33% of organisations don’t offer provisions for working parents and only 5% of new fathers and 8% of new mothers have opted for Shared Parental Leave in the UK since its introduction in April 2015. Talking mostly of big corporations with money to spend, Reid says, “If they give parents support around childcare they will have competitive advantage.” She cites the example of Goldman Sachs’ on-site childcare facilities, complete with breastfeeding rooms and care for kids aged three months to 12 years old. Goldman Sachs have deep pockets and of course this means parents can return to work sooner, but Reid is right about competitive advantage. There are tax breaks for companies that do have on-site childcare as well as evidence that it keeps workers loyal, and therefore more productive.
There’s a huge opportunity here, but it’s not just up to women to ask for it. “We need men to fight alongside us. The happier the women are in your life, the happier you will be. If they share some the unpaid work that contributes £77 billion to the UK economy every year, they would have a better quality of life. It’s win-win!”, Reid concludes passionately.
A huge lesson from this crisis is that while women are the backbone of society, we are still undervalued, underappreciated and underpaid. But, finally, it seems to be gaining political currency. We’ve seen how quickly complex billion-pound and packages can be rolled out in weeks when the political will is there, so there can be no excuses anymore when it comes to meeting demand for flexible working, shared parental leave, and better social care and terms for care workers. If we can make structural shifts on those issues, then we change everything. It’s what women have been shouting for years, now it’s time to listen.
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