Has COVID-19 levelled the playing field for women?

By Robert Half on 18th November 2020

The pandemic has completely changed the way we work. Now that everyone is dialling in from home and face-to-face workplace politics are off the table, has the stage been set for women to gain more ground?

Jenny Lynch (Vice President Marketing and PR at Robert Half) hosted a roundtable discussion on 14th October 2020 as part of an ongoing series dedicated to amplifying women's voices.

This discussion features Laura Brambilla (Group CFO Octo Telematics); Jess Payne (Head of HR at SMT); Kay Smith (Group CFO at THB Group Ltd); Naintara Agarwal (Group Head of Underwriting Performance at QBE) and Wendy Schoonjans (Director of Global Marketing at CyDen).

Together, they explored whether double standards are at play and which areas of inclusion and diversity need redress. Does the same career advice apply to both men and women working in today’s climate?

Debunking the flexible working myth

The majority of women polled haven’t found the pandemic to be a catalyst for equality in the workplace. That’s not to say things haven’t improved —the stigma around working from home has been lifted. Rather than assuming female employees will neglect work in favour of childcare, employers now recognise that it's possible to be productive outside of the office.

Traditional gender roles have also moved into a fairer equilibrium. Men have taken a more equal share of care-giving duties now that both sets of parents are working from home. Wendy’s network experienced the shift first-hand: “I've had many friends say that during COVID, their husbands were much more involved, especially with home-schooling.”

Jess believes the same issues preventing women from progressing in their careers may also be preventing men from taking on a caring role in the home. “We need to look more in-depth at what flexibility means for people, not just women, but men as well.”

Redundancies are still unfairly weighted

Men are more affected by COVID itself in terms of infection rates and death rates, but when we consider the social impact, women are the victims. A recent article showed that women's jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable in the crisis than men's. This is not necessarily an indicator of leadership bias but of job role stereotypes.

Women are more likely to be employed in hospitality and leisure roles. They are hairdressers or beauticians — jobs which are directly impacted by furlough and redundancy. This is a much wider issue which needs addressing, as Jess points out: “How do we fundamentally bring an equality or equity to those sorts of roles?”

Women are also doing more unpaid work in the home compared to their male counterparts, even during the pandemic. A recent McKinsey article found that women are still doing 26 hours of unpaid labour a week (housekeeping, parenting, etc.) compared to 16 hours for men. The imbalance still exists even when the family unit is at home.

Addressing priorities for inclusion and diversity

There’s a strong business case for diversity and equality at a top level. Increased profitability and a competitive edge are just some of the benefits it’s been proven to have.

Addressing unconscious biases will be a continual and ongoing process. Jess suggested examining potential biases in systems, policies and processes, as well as in leadership. “There are ways you can design systems and processes that remove those cognitive biases.” Without in-depth self-examination, employers are unlikely to know whether their playing field is truly level to begin with.

Diverse opinions are also key to business survival in times of uncertainty. Rather than adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude to initiate deployment, they should be looking at new ways to achieve goals. Laura believes this is the only way businesses can gain a more solid view of the future and create more opportunities for diversity. “That's the only way, because we know what we know. But we don't know what we don't know. And in this moment, we desperately need to factorise all the possible points of view.

Overcoming the double standard

Naintara works in a male-dominated field and has witnessed the double standard first-hand. From something as simple as attitudes towards the use of bad language to more complex issues like the need to prove one’s competence.

“Only recently, one of my colleagues told me they got 360 feedback from a male peer group and one of their action points was to improve their dress sense, which I thought was extremely shocking.”

Increased awareness is the first step. Celebrating female business leaders serves as tangible proof that it’s possible for women to reach the top. There are still a great many professionals who aren’t even aware that a double standard exists. Ongoing conversations can help shed more light on the issue.

Women are also more likely to be accused of having an aggressive approach to business when compared with their male counterparts. Despite this, Kay advises women not to feel deterred from voicing opinions or contributing to the conversation.

“[In theory] You're supposed to smile nicely and say nice things and make other people feel more comfortable about the fact you're around the table. And we should not have to apologise for our gender, we should not have to apologise for the fact that we have an opinion.” Don’t be afraid to put your hand up There is still vast potential for career progression. Kay advises female professionals not to rest on their laurels but instead keep requesting new challenges. Management will want you to progress and are likely to give you more responsibility if you earn it. For female leaders like Laura, giving back is the most important aspect of career advancement. Women in positions of power have the resources and opportunity to lift others up. Similarly, more junior professionals shouldn’t be afraid to ask female peers for help when they need it. “I've been lucky enough to be given the opportunity to grow, I think I've paid back on those opportunities. I felt I had to give back and give chances to other people — walking the talk is paramount.”

Webinar: The Great Leveller

Watch other roundtable discussions from this series on-demand via the Robert Half YouTube channel and blog.

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