By Lizzie Gull
As the world struggles with the pandemic, for some women it has intensified biases that have long existed under the surface. With schools being shut along with the announcement that children at home should not be cared for by grandparents or other vulnerable adults, a backward development in partnerships was felt, with the responsibility for managing children and their education at home mainly falling to mothers, pushing both men and women back into more traditional roles.
While a study done by Jim Reid (2020) found that some aspects of lockdown were enjoyable, such as more family time and not having to travel to work or taxi children around, it was also shown that the experience of lockdown had a large physical and mental toll, especially for women. An ONS (2020) survey highlighted that, of parents who were home schooling, one in three women agreed that it was negatively affecting their well-being compared with one in five men. Following on from that, many were faced with the choice of struggling to manage a triple shift of paid work, housework and emotional work, or reduce their hours which may result in a loss of progress that they had made in their careers.
For those that experienced this heightened triple shift new biases emerged, as explained in a recent McKinsey study (Women in the Workplace, 2020). One example of these new biases is the fact that the perceptions of women may change when their young children are seen in the background of virtual meetings, potentially fuelling a subconscious assumption from co-workers that these women are distracted and so less committed to their jobs. This is especially significant in performance reviews which may become biased, especially given that working from home lowers the visibility that managers may have into employee’s day-to-day work.
Balanced with the fact that working from home has made many employees feel like they are always on, as it is now harder to make distinctions between work and home, Covid, and the unrelenting pressure on parents to home school their children whilst also working, could force many mothers temporarily out of the workforce. In fact, according to the Women in the Workplace study, one in three mothers have considered career breaks or lowering their job title due to Covid. This could have significant social consequences, with less diverse workplaces which would lead to a lack of role models for women at all levels, and less women in senior positions able to mentor and sponsor other women.
Whilst many of us are now starting to see the light at the end of a very long tunnel in terms of the Covid crisis coming to an end, a survey done by Eurofound (2020) showed that in July 2020 over a third of employed respondents reported working exclusively from home. Considering that prior to Covid just 15% of those employed in the EU had ever teleworked (European Commission, 2020), the challenges faced by those dealing with the sudden shift to telework were to be expected.
However, as this is starting to become the new normal, with many companies looking at continuing working from home more often than they did before the pandemic, there is now a need for organisations to do what they can to deal with these challenges in a way that ensures equality in the workplace, and retain the employees most affected by today’s crises.
To an extent, this is already being done, as many organisations have taken positive steps to support their employees during the pandemic, keeping them informed on how to access furlough schemes, providing resources to aid remote work, and expanding mental health services.
Fewer companies have taken steps to adjust the productivity and performance expectations set pre-Covid which may now be unrealistic. These steps may involve re-establishing work–life boundaries, for instance, by putting policies in place for responding to emails outside normal work hours. Whilst the measures that a company will be able to take will depend on its size and financial situation, the most critical factor which most companies should be in a position to address is open and frequent communication– so that everybody in the company feels valued and able to voice their issues if they feel they are struggling to cope in the workplace due to the added challenges of the pandemic.
Here at the British Chamber of Commerce, we will continue to update you with the necessary information to help all our members to succeed. We are all in this together, and with the right plans in place, consumer confidence can be restored. BritCham offers support, guidance and specialised coverage for both Brexit and COVID-19, including webinars, workshops and events that will give your firm the tools it needs to navigate through this challenging period.
See our website here for more details on how we can help you: https://www.britishchamber.be/