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Gender inequality comes to the fore, again

Women are the hardest hit during this pandemic, but is there hope for a new post-Covid world?

Despite being a global health crisis which is more fatal for men, women are the hardest hit by the Covid-19 outbreak. The ways in which women are more heavily impacted are wide ranging including being the default primary carers while schools are closed, making up the majority of health workers and front line grocery staff, being the most likely victims of domestic violence and reduced access to abortions and fertility treatments, amongst others.

Although in a more privileged position than key workers that have to be in schools, in hospitals or at checkouts exposed to other people all day long, women in professions that allow them to work from home continue to bear the brunt of pandemic fallout in different ways.

Working from home with kids

A CNN report on what’s happening in the US is reflective of what’s happening in the UK too. Among middle class and higher income couples — particularly those who have the ability to work from home — job losses may not be as severe, but tradeoffs within families will still be common. In heterosexual couples, the household responsibilities and childcare will still likely fall predominantly on women. It is well documented that women pick up more of the household burden, even where both partner work full-time, and in one particular study, women did the bulk of the domestic duties in 93% of the couples analysed. Gendered social norms mean that often even though both parents might be working from home, women are expected to pick up more of the household burden while both parents try to do their full-time jobs. There are of course exceptions to this and we’ve shared stories of parents sharing the burden of working from home with kids in our previous blog.

A fantastic quote is doing the rounds on social media is a great reminder that everyone’s expectations of employee productivity should be adjusted to suit right now.

“I am not working from home. I am at home, trying to work in a crisis.”

Employer bias

There are many anecdotal stories from working mothers about how they are being penalised. A worryingly frequent occurrence appears to be women with children being refused the opportunity to work from home or being furloughed versus men with children. Managers explicitly or implicitly showing concern for a woman’s ability to work from home with children without expressing the same concern about fathers. On the other end of the spectrum are managers that don’t seem to acknowledge the existence of children and the fact that schools and nurseries are shut, thus expecting the same levels of productivity even though the dynamics in the house are completely untenable.

Essentially, working mothers continue to be penalised for being just that, working mothers.

Employers should remain conscious of the fact that this is a temporary state of affairs, and once it’s over, employees will remember how they were treated during this difficult period. Managers need to exercise a degree of compassionate pragmatism. Yes, there may still be deadlines and deliverables due, but what is the capacity of your team to deliver right now under these extraordinary circumstances.

Self employed

The government has been slowly rolling out support for the self-employed ranging from sole traders to those with businesses. However, yet again, women are inadvertently discriminated against. The new self-employed income support pays self-employed people 80% of their average earnings over the last three years. Mothers who have taken maternity leave in this time will register much lower earnings than normal and will end up with less support than if it was based on their usual income. This issue is especially pertinent when one considers that a primary motivation for going self-employed may have been motherhood in the first place. Research from IPSE shows that while the number of women in self-employment has grown sharply in the last decade, the vast majority of these women entered self-employment for reasons like greater control over working hours and better work-life balance. Campaign group Parental Pay Equality have set up a petition to request that the government amend the support scheme to allow women to exempt periods of maternity leave from the average income calculations to ensure they are not unfairly impacted.

Hope for the future

An optimistic view would be that there are some fundamental shifts to our behaviours right now, and as we look at a post-Covid world, we might find some of these behaviour shifts playing out in the longer term. Firstly, men are being forced to stay home with their families, so there may be a change in dynamics in the short-term that last long into the future.

After years of campaigning for employers to embrace flexible working for all employees, especially in order to build more diverse and inclusive workplaces, the pandemic has accelerated change in a way that no one could have foreseen. Unfortunately, this global “working-from-home experiment” doesn’t present employees with the best circumstances to show that it works. Working at home with children, worrying about health, dealing with the economic fallout, and being forced to remain at home seven-days a week, aren’t the ideal backdrops against which to access whether remote working “works”. But on a fundamental level, it proves that most jobs can be done from home, so it will be more difficult for employers to argue against allowing any flexible working post-Covid.

Image credit: Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

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