Women at work – what Coronavirus has shown us
A new report has painted a pretty bleak picture of life for working women during the lockdown.
Those forced to work from home – even when alongside a male partner – have often found their working day interrupted by the need to care for children or carry out domestic chores.
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that in mixed-sex households where both partners work, women have picked up a disproportionate amount of the household management tasks, often at the expense of their own work.
And the IFS warns that this is no short-term event. The institute says there is likely to be a long-lasting impact on women’s professional lives as a result of the pandemic – including slowing down the progress made over the past few years in narrowing the gender pay gap.
The Government effectively made gender pay gap reporting optional earlier this year as the coronavirus took hold – and the number of companies doing so has fallen by half as a result. Worryingly, early indications are that the gap has risen over the last 12 months. Analysis by the Financial Times found the average pay gap increased from 11.9 per cent to 12.9 per cent in the year to April.
This matters to all employers for a number of reasons.
Research has consistently show that a diverse, representative workforce is more creative, productive and settled, bringing obvious benefits to their company.
Legislation requires equal treatment and pay – and the pandemic does not give anyone a free pass to ignore the 2010 Equality Act which regards gender as a protected characteristic.
And as an employer, why would you want to waste the investment you have made in your female workforce for no other reason than their gender? It simply does not make sense.
So, what can you be doing to ensure that women at your company – whether returning to the workplace or working from home – are treated equally, fairly and made to feel part of a valued team?
Working from home
Current government guidance is that all employees should still work from home if at all possible. To help with this, employers should do everything they can to make it possible – such as providing any necessary equipment, allowing flexibility in the working day and accepting that the changed circumstances might result in changed performance.
For working parents, there should also be an acceptance that children will need to be cared for – but care should be taken by all employers to make no assumptions that this will fall primarily on women.
If you have not yet drawn up a working from home policy, it’s a good idea to get one in hand. This should cover issues such as the health and safety aspects of working from home, hours of work and necessary breaks, how staff will be supervised and communicated with and how performance reviews might be carried out.
Who should return to work?
The needs of the business are likely to determine which employees will return to the workplace first – but take care not to base any selection on conscious or unconscious discrimination.
A good starting point here is to talk to your staff and canvas their views on whether they would prefer to return (and meet the necessary health requirements) or if continuing to work from home suits them better. In the case of working women, pay particular attention to how they have found the experience of home-working and respond accordingly.
If you have a member of staff who is pregnant and wants to return to the workplace, you have a duty to assess the workplace risks and make any alterations necessary to reduce them or offer suitable alternative work.
As stated above, employers must not discriminate, directly or indirectly, against anyone because of a protected characteristic such as age, sex or disability. The Government guidance on returning to work says employers should take into account the particular circumstances of those with protected characteristics, consider whether any particular measures or adjustments should be made to meet the duties under the equalities legislation and make sure that no group is disadvantaged compared to others, for example, those with caring responsibilities.
All parents – men and women – will need sufficient notice of returning to work to make the necessary childcare arrangements, and flexibility should be shown in this regard. Work with your staff to try to help find solutions at a time when much provision has been severely affected.
But in all the steps you take, ensure that you do not exhibit any bias – either deliberately or sub-consciously – against women based purely on gender and work with all your staff to make everybody as comfortable as possible with the new working arrangements.
And if you need help please don’t hesitate to get in touch for a free consultation.