Choose To Challenge, The Elephant in the Room

For this year’s International Women’s Day, the theme is Choose to Challenge. The idea is that a challenged world is an alert world, and that we can all choose to challenge by calling out gender bias and inequality. We can also choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements and collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world.

So, shouldn’t we be challenging the elephant in the room?

The inconvenient truth that the pandemic has brought to light is the undeniable backward step that women have taken through the pandemic.

Let’s start with The National Bureau of Statistics, who undertook an analysis of time use data. They discovered that many UK parents changed their routines to accommodate their new childcare commitments, prompted by the coronavirus lockdown. But this change to routine was not equally shared across men and women.

During the first weeks of lockdown, in households with children aged under 18 years, women were carrying out on average two-thirds more of the childcare duties per day than men. This early disparity has continued through the entire stretch of the pandemic.

A different study, this time by the University of Sussex reported similarly findings. Ali Lacey, a doctoral researcher in the School of Psychology, who co-led the study said:

“Before Covid-19, women in our sample reported being responsible for a disproportionate share of childcare tasks. This inequality increased during the period of school closures and home working.  Two thirds (67%) of women with work commitments reported being the ‘default parent’ most of the time.

“Women are responsible for a greater share of domestic labour in seven out of the eight domestic tasks we included in the survey. We recognise that many dads have stepped up and undertaken more childcare over this period, but our findings show that women are still overwhelmingly taking on the role of primary carer, and with schools closed, primary educator.”

So, it appears that there is a status issue in maternal versus paternal employment. While a family has to adjust to shared parenting “this has often been at the cost of the mother’s work commitments.  Our findings strongly suggest that prolonged school closures and home working are likely to be having a disproportionate impact on women’s participation in the workplace.”

So, despite the decades of work to tackle gender roles in the home and the workplace.
this data suggests that the coronavirus pandemic has set back progress for women by exacerbating social and gender inequalities, even in the most progressive of households.

A different study by Kings college and Ipsos Mori that showed that while women (33%) and men (31%) are equally likely to say their caring and domestic responsibilities have increased since lockdown, female parents say they spend seven hours on an average weekday on childcare, compared with five hours for male parents. For 43% of working fathers, their caring or domestic responsibilities negatively impact their ability to do their paid job by at least a ‘fair amount’, versus 32% of working mothers who say the same.

Younger women have been particularly affected by the impacts of the pandemic, another recent survey by the Young Women’s Trust reports. Their research found that an estimated 1.5 million young women lost income since the start of the pandemic, and half of young mums were unable to get or keep a job because of childcare costs.

The needs of women already in work were not accommodated by employers either – the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that more than 70% of working mothers who asked to be furloughed for childcare reasons were refused.

In a study for the Women’s Equality Network, research shows that not only are women four times more likely to be the main caregiver, but that school closures have hit women on low incomes particularly hard too. Women with incomes of less than £20,000 are almost five times more likely to lose their job or working hours due to childcare responsibilities.

The specific impact on women caregivers during coronavirus is stark and of great concern. Certainly, the Government’s coronavirus response hasn’t acknowledged the disproportionate impact on women through its Covid policies.

So business, and in particular workplace culture, must provide the additional support for women to address this inequality, and it begins with acknowledgement. Acknowledging the issue and opening the forums for discussion is critical.

One practical thing every workplace can do is implement the United National Women’s Empowerment Principles.

  • Principle 1: Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality
  • Principle 2: Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and non-discrimination
  • Principle 3: Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers
  • Principle 4: Promote education, training and professional development for women 
  • Principle 5: Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women
  • Principle 6: Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy
  • Principle 7: Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality

Equality needs to be a priority focus for all employees. At organisational culture level, this means creating an environment where a diverse population are able to maximise their contribution/impact.

Begin by ensuring women are represented and included in decision making. Provide the tools and resources to do their job, including flexibility in an environment that brings out the best in everyone. While this is seen by many as a baseline for any organisation wishing to get the best from their teams and employees, the stark results of these recent surveys shows that right now, we need to go back to basics.

Exemplary leadership from the board, management and team leaders is also required; supporting women with internal processes that help them overcome any internal or external challenges they are facing.

A culture of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing needs to be integrated into your culture, as a must have part of your organisation

At Culture Consultancy, we support businesses with everything they need to support women, from ED&I strategies through to training, technology and tools. We help businesses to develop and support female leadership programmes, empowering women to develop the skills necessary to become leaders of the future. If you’d like to know more, or to find out how to to future proof you organisational culture and leadership, please get in touch.

Jo Geraghty
Jo is a Director and Co-Founder of Culture Consultancy, specialising in cultural change and employee experience. She is a regular speaker, author and guest lecturer, and a champion of women in business. 
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