The perception of women at work needs to change. Could the pandemic be the key to progress?

By Robert Half on 25th November 2020

Vicky Austin (Senior HR Manager UK and UAE at Robert Half) hosted a roundtable discussion on 15th October 2020 as part of our roundtable breakfast series. This discussion featured Sharon Kindleysides (CEO/Dioscean Secretary at Diocese of Bath and Wells); Zara Nanu (Global Future Council on Equity and Social Justice at World Economic Forum, CEO at Gapsquare); Emma Pearson (CEO at Achieve Together); Holly Rossetti (Director of Communications, EMEA at Adobe) and Anne Godfrey (CEO at GS1).

They sat down to share their thoughts on workplace equality and leadership styles in a post-pandemic workplace. What has changed so far and what does the future hold?

Reinforced stereotypes are inhibiting progress

The majority of women polled by Robert Half said they hadn’t experienced a difference in perception since the beginning of the pandemic. Other studies corroborate this sentiment.

A recent report by Sky News revealed that 34% of women have experienced sexist demands since the start of the pandemic. The rise of Zoom calls prompted requests for female workers to wear more makeup, style their hair, and dress more provocatively.

Sharon points out other studies which focus on gender roles in the home in relation to paid and unpaid labour. According to the UCL and Institute of Fiscal Studies report on heterosexual couples, for every hour of uninterrupted work the mother of the family was able to do, the father did three.

The only situation in which both male and female family members had an equal share of unpaid labour (childcare, housework etc.) was if the woman was still in paid employment and the man on furlough. This is despite the woman still working full time. “Stereotypical roles still seem to be reinforced at home,” Sharon says.

The impact of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter on company culture

In her role with Gapsquare, Zara has some key observations regarding equality and diversity in the workplace. At the start of the year, businesses were having conversations about workplace equality. Government was passing legislation around equal pay reporting and things were off to a strong start.

After mid-March, the story was quite different. Businesses began to side-line the agenda in favour of establishing digital workspaces and pivoting the business offering. Government put legislation on hold, signalling to businesses that it was low priority amid the crisis.

“Progressive businesses continued to publish their numbers because they knew that diversity, inclusion, supporting women through career progression and recruiting women is actually building more resilience within their business. It's going to make them more prepared for crisis and more adaptable and more agile,” says Zara. This summer's Black Lives Matter movement helped trigger renewed conversations around diversity. “Throughout March to May the diversity and inclusion agenda was taken out — even from official roles. From June onwards, you can see a lot of those roles reinstated as the Black Lives Matter movement was picking up,” says Zara. She’s happy to report that the trend towards building better, more resilient businesses is picking up.

Holly pointed out that Adobe have used the pandemic as an opportunity to promote staff wellbeing. “Our research with employees indicated that the most valuable thing we could give them at this time was time back to connect and engage,” she said. The company now takes every third Friday of the month off as annual leave to focus on personal priorities.

Leadership with a human touch

The human element has become a big part of leadership during COVID. To be able to mitigate uncertainty by turning it into impactful change and bring your team along with you.

Anne says: “Three leaders who've come out of the pandemic well — if anybody can come out of COVID-19 ‘well’ — would be Australia, Scotland and Germany. So, Nicola Sturgeon, Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel.

“If I was to look at them and say, ‘what is it that made them more effective during this time’, I'd say it's an ability to be humble. It’s an ability to see that we don't know everything, and an ability to listen to technical medical expertise and admit that they're not experts. And then to say ‘we're going to follow that expertise’ and the ability to take people with them.” Emma also believes in supporting teams through human leadership techniques. Operational resilience and business risks are easier to take when people feel empowered: “Giving your teams permission to take risks and make mistakes is a seismic shift for many organisations. But if you can do that, and you can harness the power and put people in a safe environment where they take risks within a framework that is acceptable to the organisation, you get so much back.”

Looking to the future

Fears surrounding the pandemic’s impact on women at work are not entirely baseless, but they can also serve as a platform for future discussions. In the U.S, 80% of the professionals who dropped out of the labour force in September were women. Many speculate that the pandemic could undo at least half a century’s worth of progress. “I see it as a real opportunity for us to take things in our hands,” Zara says.

Business practices have trended towards experimentation because standard practices no longer work. Unilever and other large companies have begun to move away from the conversation of shareholder capitalism and towards stakeholder capitalism. They’re becoming more involved with stakeholders and beneficiaries of the business. The green agenda has picked up alongside the Black Lives Matter movement, presenting businesses with the opportunity to resolve longstanding issues.

The remote working environment opens a wealth of opportunities for those who might not have been able to enjoy them otherwise, “From the perspective of people who have a disability, this changed way of working for some has been absolutely transformational,” says Emma. The complete change in working environment hasn’t just opened up job opportunities, it also provides bonding opportunities, “I'm optimistic about the ability for people to connect more deeply and on an emotional level and in the virtual environment,” says Holly.

The final outlook is cautiously optimistic. Although there’s a lot of work to do, the UK’s businesses are open to the potential for change.

Webinar: The Great Leveller

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

More From the Blog...