COVID-19: a step back for global gender diversity?

2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic has seen an unprecedented shift in the world of work as a result of the globally enforced move to home working.

We recently undertook a survey of professionals working in desk based roles in the UK.  We wanted to understand the scale and impact of the move to home based work. Some very interesting themes emerged, one of which has given us cause for concern of a set back to global gender diversity.


8 April 2020

For some people working life is unchanged….


Around 12% of working professionals already worked a significant part of their working week from home.  They do not feel that life has materially changed for them from a work perspective. Their lines of communication to their employer are unchanged as is their working efficiency (aside from when Joe Wicks PE starts at 9am and knocks out UK wifi for 30 mins!).


But for the majority working life has materially changed….


The remaining 88% are in uncharted territory, for them and for their employers too.  They previously worked all or most of their time in an office. They now work 100% from home.  There are so many positives to take from this transition, with businesses realising that their teams can work flexibly, from home, often with little or no impact on delivery and in some cases with improved efficiency.  It will undoubtedly change the world of work for the future to the benefit of an individual's work:life balance and mental health and also business performance.


What if the change is unmanageable?


I would like to focus on those that are balancing a work and home life that is unmanageable.  Some people are doing “extreme home working”. This is not flexible working, it is trying to work in between overseeing a fundamental change in home circumstances.  


Approximately 20-25% of working professionals are in this situation.  They estimate their working efficiency is now reduced by over 20%. They may be homeschooling one or more children or caring for an elderly relative that has moved in with them to avoid isolation. It is impossible for them to complete their work and balance their home priorities


Who is finding it unmanageable?


Who is extreme working?  Mainly women. Under “normal” circumstances, in a lot of homes there is not currently equality in terms of the split of household and care responsibilities.  This unequal division of “home responsibilities” was something we discussed in our 2019 round table on diversity as being a significant block to women attaining senior positions in business.  Under the current situation of stress, this imbalance is being skewed even further.


I am not saying that men are not impacted by the change to home working, and the balance of life priorities as well, but in the majority just not to the same extent.  We have spoken to a number of our network in the last few weeks, and have heard more often from women that they are struggling with the balance to the extent that it materially impacts their work . 


This may be because employers are less flexible with men, something that we have come across often before.  We have regularly discussed the importance of businesses offering flexible working to men as well as women.  However, we have certainly heard in recent weeks “my husband works full time and can’t change his hours” as a reason for the extreme stress some women are under.  


Another factor is household earnings. Often men are the higher earners in the family.  We know from gender pay gap reporting that the gap widened in favour of men in nearly half of the UK’S largest employers last year.  So, it is possible that women feel obliged to take on more of the household and care work during the crisis to protect the work of the higher earner in the household, to the detriment of their own work.


What will happen to these people, mainly women?


In a perfect world this group would be supported by their line managers and employers and helped onto a manageable schedule in the near term to help them to get through this period of stress.


However, in this period of crisis, businesses and their teams are also under stress.  Decision making time is reduced and cash flow prioritisation is key.


We have already seen common guidance that when considering furlough, businesses should first look at those who are struggling to work due to caring responsibilities.  Indeed, in the near term it may suit both the employer and the individuals for these employees to be furloughed to reduce the pressure. However, this approach bears no reference to the role they are performing or their importance to the business.  They become “non essential” to the business due to their home situation rather than because of their current value to their employer.


What does this mean in the longer term? If the economy doesn’t bounce back and redundancies are made, it will be easy to look first at the people on furlough, who won’t have been in their role for 2-3 months, a group that is likely to be disproportionately women at all levels of seniority.


This could be a big blow for women in the workplace. Together with removing gender pay gap reporting this year, and with the spotlight off, firms are going to have to really focus not to move a big step back in gender diversity.  A step that could take years to reverse.


I am a director at Flexology, a growing Bristol-based recruitment and consultancy business dedicated to improving flexible working opportunities for professionals.

We work with progressive businesses on recruitment for both full and part-time flexible roles, including reduced hours, compressed hours, remote working and many more variations. We focus on professional level roles with flexibility in finance, project management, sales, marketing, HR and business support and deliver the best opportunities to our skilled network who are looking for the right work:life balance.

We also offer consultancy services to businesses looking to implement or improve a flexible working framework for their teams.

If you would like to chat about how we can help you, get in touch - or 0117 214 1224