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

  • Market Insight 8 October 2020 8 October 2020
  • Global, UK & Europe

  • Coronavirus

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, Germany 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% 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 should of course retain a focus on diversity, and issues which impact on certain groups of their employees more than others. And there is evidence, in relation to sex diversity, that there are rewards for those that continue to attract and keep women in their business. A report Women Count 2020, by the Pipeline, found that FTSE 350 companies with more than 33% female membership on their executive committees have a net profit margin over 10 times greater than those with no women at this level.

Many organisations were already focused on gender diversity issues, and any gender pay gap, before this crisis hit, and in light of the statistics set out above, it is likely that some may well see a gender pay gap increasing. Gender pay gaps are often associated with a lack of women in senior positions; and if the impact of this crisis feeds through to an impact on women moving into senior positions, that will harm any efforts to reduce gender pay gaps through progression.

How can employers mitigate the disadvantage?

In light of the potential impacts identified above, there are steps that employers can consider taking to understand any disproportionate impact coronavirus is having on women in their own workplace, and therefore to assist in tackling any gender inequality which may result.

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 remain as important now as they were before; but we would recommend a review to establish if they remain the right initiatives to deal with any issues employers have identified, and to assist with any issues created by the lockdown. Whilst understandably focus has been on crisis management during the early stages of the pandemic, gender diversity and inclusion remain a key issue for businesses, and continued focus remains important to combat any issues caused or heightened by the pandemic.

Flexible working

In many industries where there is office based work, this period has seen a huge shift in employers' understanding of how flexible and home working can work in practice for office based workers. Although very few will be considering a fully home working culture on a permanent basis for office based work, anecdotal evidence suggests many will be considering a new mixture of office and home based work, with a culture of full time office work perhaps becoming no longer the "norm". Many 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, and flagging potential risks around this disproportionately impacting women who are statistically 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, and what businesses have learnt from their abilities to cater for flexible working practices (on either a short term or longer term basis) will be important in attracting and retaining employees during and after the pandemic is over; and again based on childcare responsibilities this would be particularly important for female employees. This requires flexibility by employers in handling those with caring responsibilities and considering what their business can accommodate. 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, this is likely to cause a gender imbalance to continue through the winter.

Employers may want to consider a review of flexible working policies in light of the above issues. Such consideration may include:

  • The extent to which employees are "encouraging" employees to return to offices and the point at which return becomes compulsory; and how personal circumstances of employees, as against the needs of the business, are taken into account. This will have to be closely linked to government guidance in the coming months as the pandemic situation develops
  • The design of office space, the development of technology and whether the culture supports diverse 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

The benefit of these considerations is the prospect of using the "new normal" to further support and potentially enhance an inclusive culture for all employees, in a way that supports the business' needs and also supports those with childcare responsibilities, and seeks to support women with issues that they may be facing.

Maintain fair redundancy processes

There are likely to be circumstances in which many organisations need to consider employees for redundancy. Employers will want to consider how it may be appropriate to amend any criteria to take into account any recent issues that employees may have faced in their own particular circumstances. A criterion of "attendance", for example may disproportionately impact those with childcare responsibilities, which would (based on the statistics) disadvantage women more. A business would want to consider if it should amend such a criterion in the circumstances.

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, is an area to consider for employers.

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, if an employer is able to publish its data it will have the advantage of monitoring its progress towards its aims.

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 changes 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 may change. This may lead to societal and cultural change outside of the workplace, with a more equal sharing of childcare between parents after the pandemic ends as compared to the current statistics. This may impact on employers in terms of their seeing, over time, this impacting on issues within work which may currently impact on women more than men.

Based on issues which have been faced during the pandemic, organisations have the chance to consider how working practices may be amended in the interests of their business, and also to the advantage of employees, going forwards. Many employers have found remote working arrangements to be effective on a short term basis, and continuing with such flexibility to some degree on a permanent basis after the pandemic may be possible and well worthy of consideration. For the reasons set out in this article, that would be likely to support women in a manner that may then assist in promoting increased equality across an organisation.  However, targeted action can also be considered to assist with any imbalances and issues thrown up by this unique period by employees, where possible for an organisation, to try and prevent issues created by the pandemic having a lasting impact on progression for employees, including women who have felt the issues harder based on the statistics outlined above.

Considering such measures, and taking such measures where appropriate, should have a positive impact both in the short term, and the longer term for women, and for all employees.

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