Coronavirus putting women’s careers at risk

Women’s careers are being disproportionately affected by the huge challenge of homeschooling and looking after children

Nearly two months since schools closed and the government ordered people to work from home, it’s become apparent that the measures put in place to limit spread of the coronavirus are compromising women’s ability to work, and future career prospects, more than their male colleagues and partners.

Prof James Wilsdon, director of the Research on Research Institute, worries that the lockdown is skewing a playing field that was never level in the first place. “We have to be very cautious that we’re not privileging those who are able to use the coronavirus situation as time to race ahead of their peers,” he said. “Women are held back – not by talent or aspiration but by the need to do homeschooling and put three meals a day on the table.”

But why, at a time when a third of women are the ‘breadwinners’ for their families, does society still expect mothers to bear the burden of caring for and homeschooling children?

In many cases, families will attempt to justify this on the grounds that the mother is ‘already working part-time anyway’, ‘is better with the children’ or ‘has fewer virtual meetings to attend during the working day’. Unfortunately, the reality is that more often than not, women have allowed themselves to slip into stereotypical roles, without questioning whether or not the load could be shared more evenly and fairly with their partner, if they have one.


Eliminating ‘daddy discrimination’

This is all the more unfortunate because, in most cases, men typically want to become more involved in their children’s lives and to have a better work-life balance, but have themselves slipped into ‘traditional roles’ or had their requests for flexible working turned down.

With the usual childcare options of school, holiday clubs or grandparents no longer available, now is a golden opportunity for men to ask for the opportunity to flex their hours in a way that might not have been considered possible or socially acceptable at all.

At a time when gender pay gap reporting has been suspended, this seriously matters. We know from coaching women how to eliminate the barriers that can prevent them from progressing in their careers once they become a parent that it’s not just the barriers at work that matter. The amount of support they get at home is also vitally important.


Changing the culture

A report by the House of Commons Women and Equality Committee found that some men have been mocked by colleagues after opting to work part-time to share childcare duties.  Other men report being reluctant to play a more active role at home for fear that this might cause them to be overlooked for promotion opportunities.

Normally, changing the culture of a business, not to mention society in general, to overcome these objections would take years, if not decades, or require the appointment of a new CEO or wellbeing strategy to make this culturally acceptable. But the disruption caused by the exceptional circumstances generated by the coronavirus could provide the impetus for this to happen almost immediately, in much the same way that the Second World War made it acceptable for women to work at all.

While women no longer have the usual childcare options available to them, any employer that doesn’t want to see career equality for women set back a generation must use the current disruption to encourage male employees to play a more active role at home. That means providing the education and support on how to work more flexibly, typically only provided to mothers, to fathers as well.


Mental health benefits

The world is now a very different place to 2017 when people gasped in horror as Professor Robert Kelly’s four-year-old-daughter gatecrashed a live TV interview with the BBC.  Few working parents have escaped similar scenes while working from home, with Derek Jones, chief executive of luxury travel operator Kuoni saying, “One of the joyous things is the number of kids that now appear at our senior management meetings, we all know each other’s families quite well now,”

This is in stark comparison to just a few months ago, when parents felt they had to pretend they had a medical appointment or sneak out early to watch their child’s sports day, and most men didn’t feel able to express any desire to better balance their lives for the needs of their children.

This acceptance of people for who they are and what matters to them, only stands to benefit workplaces with a major study by Google finding that ‘psychologically safe’ teams, who feel able to be open about things like their parenting commitments, free from ridicule or recrimination, were found to outperform targets by 17%. Whereas those with low levels of psychological safety, where people didn’t feel safe being themselves, missed targets by 19%.


Getting managers on board

Even though HR might be on board with the above and have approved someone’s request to work flexibly, the first time a customer or colleague wants to get hold of them and complains to their manager that they’re not around, the tendency of most managers will be to panic and tell the individual, and HR, that the flexible working thing isn’t working. Yet what’s really required is better use of out-of-office communications to direct urgent enquiries to another member of the team or reassure customers and colleagues that they will be responded to shortly.

Without their manager on side, people who are anxious to keep their jobs as we enter into a second recession will be tempted to work more, not fewer hours, even though research shows that the UK’s overwork culture has done nothing to prevent it becoming one of the most unproductive countries in the world.

To override this, managers must be encouraged to role-model living a more balanced life themselves, because it’s only once people see those individuals responsible for their job security, pay and promotion fitting work around their lives, instead of life around work, that they will feel safe to do this also.

Managers must also be encouraged to assess everyone’s performance according to clear outcomes and targets, linked to overall business objectives, instead of the number of hours they’re putting in. Not only will this make both women and men feel more comfortable working in the ways they need right now, it will boost productivity to help rebuild the economy and ensure women don’t come out of the crisis at an unnecessary disadvantage.


By Helen Letchfield, co-founder, Parent & Professional

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