Gender and COVID-19: how employers can manage the disproportionate impact on women

During the coronavirus crisis to date, women in the UK are more likely to have lost work, seen a decrease in their earnings and been working while looking after children. We consider what employers can do to manage this disadvantage and enhance diversity with their organisation.

Gender and COVID-19: how employers can manage the disproportionate impact on women

The disproportionate impact of coronavirus on women in the workplace

Data collated by Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich shows that women are more likely than men to have lost work and experienced a fall in their earnings since mid-March 2020. The data, taken from almost 15,000 people across the UK and the US, found that many women without university degrees are more likely to be working in roles where they are unable to work from home, making them more vulnerable to losing their employment.

Similarly, a study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies which surveyed the experiences of 3,500 families with two opposite-gender parents found that in lockdown, mothers have been impacted much more than fathers. They are more likely by 47% to have lost their jobs and more likely to have had their hours cut and been furloughed. Almost half of mothers’ hours spent doing paid work are split between that and other activities such as childcare, compared with under one-third of fathers’ paid working hours. Women are only doing on average 33% of the uninterrupted paid work of fathers. Before lockdown, this was 60%, already a disadvantage made more acute by this crisis. The impact on the performance of women in their work during this time is significant, with knock on effects on pay, promotion and prospects for the future.

In addition, the UK government has exempted companies from having to file gender pay gap data this year, with only half of companies choosing to do so. The UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) found in 2019 that there was a 17.3 percent pay gap between men and women in the United Kingdom when considering part and full-time employees together.

On 9 June 2020, the Government announced an exemption to the furlough closing date for some parents returning from parental leave. Over the summer, the House of Commons Petitions Committee issued a report on the impact of COVID-19 on maternity and parental leave, requesting greater support, including an extension of paid leave, which was dismissed by the government in early September.

Why does it matter?

Whilst the current crisis has led many businesses to re-evaluate their chief concerns (such as shifting focus to technology and health and safety matters), employers who continue to attract and keep women in their business are likely to reap the rewards that a diverse workforce offers in the short- as well as long-term. A report Women Count 2020, by the Pipeline, found that London-listed firms with one-third or more female chief executives have a profit margin over 10 times greater than those without.

In addition, progressive employers who look beyond ‘quick fixes’ and actively engage with their employees on gender issues are likely to foster open and positive workplaces.

Many organisations were already fighting to rectify a gender pay gap before this crisis hit and are facing an even greater challenge in reducing their gaps if the risks associated with the impacts of the virus on women are realised. Gender pay gaps are often associated with a lack of women in senior positions. The impacts on pay, promotion and prospects caused by the virus have the ability to set back any small amount of progress being made in this area. This can have a severe impact on an organisation’s reputation and ability to retain talent in the future.

How can employers mitigate the disadvantage?

In light of the potential impacts identified above, there are steps that employers can take to understand the impact coronavirus is having on women and tackle gender inequality in their organisations.

Gender diversity initiatives

Many employers had a suite of diversity and inclusion initiatives already in play with a view to reducing their gender pay gap. Those initiatives are more important now than ever before. The world has changed since those initiatives were put in place. We would recommend a review to establish if they are sufficiently targeted to remedy any imbalances in pay, promotion and prospects created during the lockdown. Whilst understandably focus has been on crisis management during the early stages of the pandemic, gender diversity and inclusion remains a business critical issue and renewed focus will be essential to combat the added inequalities caused by the pandemic.

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Flexible working

In many industries, this period has seen a huge shift in employers’ understanding of the value of flexible and home working, Although very few will be considering a fully home working culture forever, anecdotal evidence suggests most will never return to a culture of full time office work. Most will be devising plans to return to a “new normal” in the short and medium term. Some industry leaders, including the CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, are sounding alarm bells about pushing employees back to work too early, creating the risk of a two-tiered workforce as women are still more likely to be suffering from childcare difficulties as the pandemic continues.

Creating or maintaining flexible working policies which reflect the new reality we live in will be essential in attracting and retaining women during and after the pandemic is over. This requires true flexibility by employers in handling those with caring responsibilities. The government has recently announced fines for employers who seek to prevent their employees from self-isolating. With long delays in testing and children likely to pick up cold and flu following their return to school, the prospect of employers dealing with absences from parents waiting for tests for their children is increasing daily. With caring responsibility still falling predominantly on women, the gender imbalance is likely to continue through the winter.

We would recommend a review of flexible working policies to ensure they match the “new normal” world and these should dove-tail with employers’ diversity and inclusion aims. Employers will need to assess:

  • The extent to which they are “encouraging” employees to return to offices and the point at which return becomes compulsory. This will have to be closely linked to government guidance in the coming months as the pandemic situation develops. Employers should consider all the personal circumstances of employees in making these decisions and how they are communicated.
  • Thinking carefully about the design of office space, the development of technology and the culture the employer wants to create so that it can accommodate a diverse range of needs.
  • How formal flexible working requests are handled during and after this transition phase. Employers can expect a higher volume of requests as well as requests involving more time at home than would have been typical before the pandemic, with a reduced ability to reject requests for those who have successfully worked at home for most of the year.

The benefit of getting these measures right is the prospect of using the “new normal” to enhance and accelerate a more inclusive culture where women can thrive, even attracting women into roles that would have previously not be within the reach of those with child-caring commitments. With the right approach, employers have the ability to capture this moment in the most positive of ways.

Maintain fair redundancy processes

There are likely to be circumstances in which many organisations need to consider employees for redundancy. Employees may be at a disadvantage in showing recent work experience or strong performance if they have recently been furloughed or if they have been trying to work while also caring for a child.

To avoid dismissing or selecting individuals for redundancy or furlough unfairly, or in a way that may be discriminatory, employers should ensure that they follow a fair process, such as by utilising objective scoring criteria or weighting such criteria in a selection exercise in a way which does not disproportionately disadvantage women. If the criterion is ‘attendance’, for example, a woman has been on maternity leave or been required to attend medical appointments as a result of her pregnancy may be unfairly disadvantaged if care is not taken. If performance is a criteria, care should be taken to recognise the circumstances under which women in particular have been working during this period and to recognise performance prior to any period of furlough rather than favouring recent performance.

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The Government promised in July 2019 that it would expand the period of redundancy protection from the point an employee notifies her employer of her pregnancy until six months after the end of maternity leave. New legislation has been expected in the form of a draft Employment Bill but this has presumably been delayed due to the coronavirus crisis. In the meantime, the Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill, a private member’s bill aims to achieve the same result. The second reading of the bill is scheduled to take place on Friday 16 October 2020 and we shall report on its progress.

Managing physical and mental health, including in relation to domestic abuse

Managing the health and safety of employees, as we considered in our previous articles in relation to those working from home as well as individuals who are returning to work, remains a key factor in supporting individuals in the workplace. The pandemic has encouraged employers to expand their role in monitoring and improving employees’ wellbeing, ranging from adjusting operating hours, offering hardship relief funds to employees in need, and enhancing sick leave. This has been a challenging time for managers and HR who have been under pressure in their own lives while trying to help colleagues in distress. Training for managers and HR on identifying mental health red flags in a remote environment, as well as maintaining their own mental wellbeing, will be a key to success in this difficult area.

The increased focus on the health and safety of employees is especially prevalent for women who may be suffering from the widely reported increase of domestic abuse taking place in homes across the UK, as the shift to remote working means that possible visibility within an organisation may be challenged.  Employers that educate business leaders and keep in touch with employees (for example, by using Business in the Community and Public Health England’s Domestic Abuse Toolkit) are likely to be better equipped to support those who are suffering from abuse at home.

Gender pay gap

Businesses are not required to submit gender pay gap data this year, which was widely welcomed by HR staff tasked with keeping their organisations safe during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak. Nevertheless, choosing to publish their data will mean employers can:

  • monitor their progress towards eradicating potential obstacles which may be preventing the career progression of women; and
  • raise their profile as a forward-thinking and inclusive employer, making them more attractive to potential candidates and potentially more likely to hold on to the employees they currently have.

Looking ahead

Despite the challenges the pandemic has brought about for workplaces and households across the world, there is the potential to bring about positive change in the UK going forward.

With fathers on average covering nearly double the hours of childcare than before the crisis (according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies), attitudes about the role of fathers in meeting family needs for childcare and domestic work during the working week is likely to change. This may drive a more equal sharing of childcare and housework between mothers and fathers after the pandemic ends, improving the balance for many families as a whole, particularly if the rates of men working from home remain much higher than before the pandemic hit.

Organisations have the chance to make decisions to remodel working practices. Many employers have found remote working arrangements to be effective, and continuing with such flexibility after the pandemic is likely to support women in a manner that promotes increased equality across the organisation.  However, targeted action is needed to rectify any imbalances thrown up by this unique period to ensure the disadvantage currently being felt by many women does not impact on future pay, prospects and promotion opportunities.

Such measures are likely to have a positive impact on reducing the gender pay gap, increasing the wellbeing of the workforce as a whole and improving the organisation’s reputation as a desirable employer. A strong case for taking action now.

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