Aug 24th 2021

Covid-19 must be used to create a fairer workplace

COVID-19 has wrought havoc on our world, causing tragic loss of human life, and devastating the communities and economies that hold us together.

Almost half of the world’s 3.3 billion employees are in danger of losing their livelihoods, the W.H.O says, while social distancing requirements have put an end to 9-5 office life as we knew it.

As structures have fallen, we can see a business landscape that is far from perfect. Gender equality in the workplace now stands out as a problem that has gone unaddressed for far too long.

Promise of improvement

When work moved online and education became home-based, it was hoped domestic duties would become more evenly split between parents, helping to restore an element of balance.

Instead, women have taken on “a larger share” of growing childcare needs, says the London School of Economics. Women in the US and western Europe are spending around 15 hours per week more than men on home-based work post-Covid, research finds.

Flexible working has been brought into play, with Deloitte’s 20,000 staff now able to choose “when, where and how they work”. But Joeli Brearly, founder of the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, fears that women who are under pressure to take care of others “will tend to stay at home”, and look less committed to their job than those who go into the office.

The bottom line is that gender equality now “has a fundamental bearing on whether or not economies and societies thrive”, the World Economic Forum, says.

What’s at stake?

At the top level, women are needed in senior roles to encourage other women to pursue career pathways and smash the glass ceiling. But crucially, having more women on board leads to smarter decision-making. It brings down risk-taking, improving business reputation, earnings quality and performance.

The cold economic truth is that taking action now could add $13 trillion to global GDP come 2030, compared with a gender-regressive scenario.

The path forward

Business leaders must take the initiative by developing the right culture model within their organisation. Working from home has a key role to play.

By following the “CARE” points below, employers can implement WFH strategies that look after parents’ immediate needs, while sowing the seeds for equality in the long-term.

  • Communicate

Those working remotely will be operating to their own schedules. So, it’s vital to stay in touch with employees to understand their workloads and how those may change. Establish what tasks are mission critical, then prioritise these to generate more flexibility where needed.

  • Accommodate

Flexible working may be fully- or part-paid, while other agreements may be less formal. The goal remains the same: support individuals with a framework that allows them to concentrate on their jobs.

Microsoft’s “pandemic school closure” gives parents up to 12 weeks’ paid childcare leave, helping employees to take control of their priorities without losing out financially.

  • Remove bias

Care responsibilities should be factored into reviews, whether they be for promotion or business planning decisions. Processes should be monitored to ensure caregivers are not discriminated against, and results recorded by gender to counter the increased domestic burdens that women may be taking on.

  • Empathise

Throughout this terrible pandemic, our anxieties have been compounded by the fear of being laid off. These added pressures may make men and women reluctant to speak up when life gets too much. It is vital, therefore, that we reach out to people collectively and put understanding first, instead of leaving it to our valuable employees to seek help as a last resort.

Seize the opportunity

Beyond the moral imperative, the wellbeing of our economies and society as a whole depends on us treating gender equality at work as a key business driver.

Real change is needed if we are to create the healthier teams and balanced business practices that will future-proof communities, post-pandemic. Leaders and policy makers must step up now and make parity a reality.

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