What has Covid meant for women in the workplace?

Our sister site workingmums.co.uk held a roundtable with employers in January to discuss what they have been doing to help women with caring responsibilities during the Covid pandemic.

Women

 

workingmums.co.uk held a virtual roundtable on 19th January to bring together employers and outside experts to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on women in the workforce. This was the second roundtable on this subject after a previous one in October and followed the lockdown in January and concerns that this would particularly affect women with caring responsibilities.

The roundtable was hosted by Gillian Nissim, founder of workingmums.co.uk, who said it was vital that women did not get left behind as a result of Covid double shifts and added that it was important to chart how employers’ policies and practice around dealing with issues related to women in the workplace had evolved in the last months.

Data collection
For many employers the immediate aftermath of Covid was about adapting to survive and it was only now that there was a period of reflection of the impact of that adaptation, with employers now needing to look at what the data showed. The suspension of the imperative to publish gender pay gap audits meant many employers had not published their figures and there was concern about the stipulations around this year’s data, particularly with regard to furloughed staff. Employers agreed consistent data was vital, however, for monitoring women’s progression at work and should be accompanied by an action plan to address issues that emerged. Gender pay audits showed the impact of women being concentrated in certain departments and men being more likely to be in higher paid STEM-related roles with better career progression.

Employers agreed that gender pay audits focused the mind and forced senior leaders to look at what action could be taken. Some had ambitious targets for greater gender balance in senior roles. However, there was concern that 2020 had set targets back, with one employer saying it was likely more women had taken redundancy due to the immediate focus on operational issues and because there had been less attention to gender targets. It was important to monitor gender data in relation to who had taken redundancy and to do exit interviews to find out why people were leaving, for instance, whether it was linked to childcare issues.

Employers said data is becoming more important to understand what is happening at every stage in the employee cycle. Organisations like Workday are providing inclusion dashboards. Employee data needs to be kept up to date, but it is also important to explain what the data is being used for to win people’s trust, said employers. For technology companies, it is vital to use data to get points across as this is the kind of language leaders and technologists take notice of.

One employer highlighted discrepancies in the gender pay audit figures which made some employers with fewer women in their organisation look better than those with more – if those women were more concentrated in the lower ranks. They were not a true reflection of what was happening. Some employers were looking at different information, such as the length of time people are in their job before they apply for promotion and application rates for senior roles based on gender and other characteristics. It was also important to investigate where roles were advertised and the importance of making it clear flexible working is available and how that affects application rates.

For Diana Parkes from Women’s Sat Nav for Success it is the contribution to value gap that determines whether women apply for promotion. At entry level women and men have similar levels of feeling valued in relation to their contribution, but her research shows the emergence of a 26% gap for women in middle management. 83% of women in middle management report that they are consistently contributing, but only 56% feel that their contributions are consistently valued [this compares to 77% for men]. A lack of appreciation leads to lack of motivation to progress and falling engagement. At senior leadership level there is a big gap in the contribution to value gap. The consistent message women are getting, said Parkes, is that they are not as good as men, which leads to them not putting themselves forward for opportunities.

There was some discussion about ‘imposter syndrome’, with Parkes saying that it implied that a sense of lack of confidence was somehow innate in women when it is in fact the result of the messages women are getting every day. It is important to understand why employers undervalue the contribution of certain groups of employees and the subtle ways this is communicated, she said. Parkes called for employers to create deliberate habits and behaviours to ensure that everyone feels valued, for instance, training managers to ensure everyone is listened to in meetings. Parkes added that it was important to be careful when it came to unconscious bias training tools. Some could trigger more bias. She said they had to be used carefully and in a constructive context and as part of a bigger programme – otherwise they could make things worse.

Homeschooling/caring responsibilities
Employers emphasised the importance of admitting how stressful the childcare/homeschooling situation is and looking at simple things that can make a difference, for instance, regular communications from senior leaders that set the tone of expectations and give the message that family comes first. Senior leaders need to role model this and show that they may also have childcare issues and need to take time off for family reasons. Role modelling helped give people permission to admit they were struggling. Other ideas include regular Pulse surveys and weekly Q & A sessions with the leadership team. Even little touches such as tech teams making emojis that people can use to show they are ‘with the kids’ enable people to be more open about the challenges they are facing.

Empowering people to take charge of their own wellbeing is also important, for instance, not imposing, or reducing, core hours so people are able to work when they can, introducing wellbeing days on top of normal leave or putting all live content on an on demand portal so people can access it at any time.

Another suggestion was to send people regular reminders about the support they can access via Employee Assistance programmes and wellbeing apps, to provide line managers with workshops on wellbeing and set up peer support channels, such as parenting channels on Slack where they can share the stresses of Covid working and resources that can help.

More than new policies, the need was to give people, whether they are parents or not, permission to share the challenges they are facing during the pandemic. Employers admitted that the January lockdown had been more difficult for parents and said the first time around people had been too busy trying to keep their organisations going. This time around people were asking for more from their employers and there were more concerns too about the impact on older children. Other employers who needed people to go out to work reported people feeling more anxious this time around with mental health issues being more pronounced generally. People are finding it more difficult to see forwards. Mental and financial resilience are huge issues, with gender falling back, although social inequalities are widening.

Women’s career progression
Gillian Nissim referred to a recent McKinsey report which highlighted how women’s career progression could be affected by the pandemic, not just in terms of women losing their jobs, but being passed over for promotion if promotion is based on productivity at a time when women have been doing a double shift.

Several distinct areas for action were highlighted to improve women’s career progression: attracting more women into senior roles through greater flexible working, sponsorship of women, networks which promote female career progression and more awareness of the link between equality in the home and equality in the workplace.

There were some individual positive initiatives. One employer spoke of their plans to bring back their returners programme and launch a women’s leadership programme. The latter had been delayed since just before the pandemic, but was now going ahead. There had been some scepticism, mainly from women, but it was felt the programme was a step forward. Another positive was the way employers had adapted to remote working where they had been resistant before. Agile working on site was more complex, but it was felt more agile working for office-based roles would lead to pressure to roll it out across organisations and that this would make it easier to attract women. Moreover, messages about diversity were beginning to get through and sharing female success stories in senior roles was changing the narrative in male-dominated organisations. One employer in the finance sector said that signing up to the Women in Finance Charter had given the biggest boost to driving strategic commitment to improving gender balance and inclusion.

Diana Parkes said mentoring could also help, but research showed sponsorship had more impact. Moreover, much mentoring was mediocre with mentors not properly supported, leaving mentors feeling exposed and vulnerable.

A positive development during Covid was that women’s networks had moved online and this had made them more accessible and more self-sufficient. Networks had been able to put on short, focused sessions on specific challenges and enabled women to support each other and share their experiences and potentially provided an important role throughout their career. The power of networks has grown stronger during Covid and employers said people often felt more comfortable opening up in a virtual environment when they could see inside others’ houses.

Labour surplus
The labour market had changed during Covid and, with growing unemployment, there were fears employers might not feel the need to reach out to groups such as women. Diana Parkes spoke of the small amount of budget given to Diversity and Inclusion. Others mentioned the way senior leaders often set targets for women and expect HR to somehow fulfill them without recognising the challenges.

But there was optimism that things were changing. Employers in male-dominated fields spoke of more female trainees coming on board and of programmes that retrain employees to do tech roles. Despite cuts and the focus on survival over the last year which made programmes around gender inclusion seem inappropriate, there was a feeling that there was real momentum building when it came to D & I and that people were keen to get back on the bus and press accelerate when they can. The technology sector still had many skills shortages and they could offer higher paid, resilient jobs so tech retraining programmes were a key focus.

Employers said more needed to be done to change people’s minds at the top of organisations. The Black Lives Matter movement had provided a big impetus for change. The narrative about D & I needed to change with a focus on how to address structural issues and micro inequalities.

Key takeaways:
Data:

  • Data collection can help identify pinch points, eg, collect data on redundancy and application rates by gender and check if flexible working makes a difference to applications by gender
  • Conduct exit interviews to find out the reasons why people are leaving
  • Gender pay audits should include an action plan
  • Explain to people what their data is being used for so you build trust
  • Train managers to make sure everyone feels valued and listened to
  • Unconscious bias training needs to be part of a broader programme and expertly carefully

Homeschooling/caring

  • Give people permission to be open about the challenges they are facing
  • Get senior leaders to give consistent messages about realistic expectations and to role model taking time for family
  • Reduce core hours and empower employees to take control of their own working day
  • Think about offering wellbeing days on top of normal leave to ensure employees get adequate time to recharge
  • Regularly remind employees of wellbeing support that is available, including peer support channels

Women’s career progression

  • Offer more flexible working in senior roles
  • Offer sponsors more than mentors
  • Properly train and support mentors
  • Encourage online support networks
  • Encourage equality at home and the links between equality at home and equality at work

Labour surplus

  • Retrain women to take on technical roles
  • Focus on structural issues and everyday discrimination, including sexism and racism

Participants

Pitney Bowes

Willmott Dixon

DWP

Skipton Building Society

Sky Betting & Gaming

Financial Services Compensation Scheme

Next

Greater Anglia

Morgan Sindall

Booking.com

Carnival UK

NatWest

Diana Parkes, Women’s Sat Nav for Success



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