The pandemic has set back gender equality on company boards in the UK by as much as four years, with new research suggesting that parity between male and female members won’t be reached until 2036.
The annual Women Count report, published by consultancy The Pipeline, found that progress in boosting gender diversity has slowed significantly over the past year, with men now holding 78% of all executive committee roles in the FTSE 350 – and women holding just 22% of positions.
Although women are in a better position than five years ago, the pandemic has slowed the rate of change. In 2021, we witnessed an increase of 2.5% on the previous year, but in 2020 this same annual measure was 2.7%.
However, companies with greater gender diversity were shown to achieve higher profits, while those without female executives suffered bigger financial losses. Companies where at least 50% of their board members were women experienced a profit margin of 21.2%. On the other hand, firms without women on their executive committees saw a drop in profits of 17.5%.
But why has the pandemic had such a detrimental impact on gender parity – and what can businesses do to address the problem?
Women around the world have been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has heightened the inequalities women face daily at work and home. “We know that the pandemic has led to lockdowns which have resulted in the need to homeschool, a responsibility predominately undertaken by women,” says Kate Sang, a professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt University.
“Data suggests that women were more likely to either exit employment altogether, or reduce their working hours to care for their children. However, men have not reported similar patterns. Obviously leaving work or going part time will have serious detrimental financial pressures but will also affect their future career prospects.”
According to Sang’s ongoing research, women who are carers for disabled adults are also at increased risk of negative career outcomes as a result of the pandemic.
“Respondents have reported to us that they have had no choice but to leave their fulfilling professional job and move to zero-hours, low-paid work to balance care responsibilities,” explains Sang. “It is a situation not reported by the men in our study. Covid has closed many respite and day care centres, as well as reducing access to wider support of family and friends too.”
In previous recessions, such as the 2008 global financial crisis, men have faced a greater risk of unemployment than women. This is, in part, because the sectors that usually struggle during downturns, such as construction, are dominated by men. However, closures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have affected sectors predominantly staffed by women, such as retail, care and leisure.
“We also can't avoid that women were often in the front line of Covid, working in retail, health and social care, as well as education,” says Sang. “We have also seen that women are more likely to get long Covid, particularly those in so-called middle age, which is also likely to impact their careers.”
The effects on women's careers are likely to be complex, Sang adds, based on a combination of job type, exposure to COVID and broader inequalities in the household division of labour. “Disabled women are likely to be at increased risk due to vulnerability to COVID-19 as well as navigating inaccessible workplaces,” she says.
So what can companies do to mitigate the gender parity damage caused by the pandemic?
First, companies should immediately undertake research to better understand the impact of the pandemic on their employees. “They should work with women to develop a COVID-19 recovery plan,” says Sang. This might be better access to flexible working, accompanied by the dismantling of bias towards ‘in-office’ employees.
Proximity bias is the incorrect assumption that people will produce better work if they are physically present in the office, leading to inequity in promotion between remote and in-person workers. With women more likely to request remote working, it can lead to them missing out on advancement opportunities.
Therefore, employers need to be open to flexible working – whether it is working from home or a hybrid model – but they also need to ensure that remote workers have access to the same opportunities.
Secondments to develop skills, as well as mentoring, sponsorship and the championing of women in work, are also key. Mentors are people who take the time to help others navigate the working world. This might mean offering a friendly ear and advice when it comes to career choices, which in turn, can help people build their confidence or boost self-esteem.
A sponsor plays a more tangible role in the workplace, pushing women forward for promotions or pay rises and putting them forward for new positions. A sponsor is willing to invest in someone’s career, rather than just play the part of a role model.
“Employers need to find ways forward that enable women to recover their careers and also their work-life balance,” says Sang.