During my career, I have researched the various challenges women face in their lives and careers, so a recent invitation to a virtual meeting with the Women and Work All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Monday 18 May 2020, provided an excellent opportunity to contribute my own research-informed evidence to compelling discussions of how COVID-19 is impacting on women in the workplace.
While deaths rates from Covid-19 are higher for males, this meeting was prompted by reports that BAME groups are more vulnerable to the virus, and the Office for National Statistics that has found 75% of employees in the occupations most exposed to COVID-19 are women. Alongside health risks, the COVID-19 crisis is significantly impacting parts of the workforce where women are concentrated; amongst the self-employed, the gig economy, or as workers who are dependent on childcare. The effects of this crisis will be felt for years to come, and care and attention will need to be applied to ensure that existing disparities regarding pay and progression in the labour market, which I have researched and written about, are not exacerbated.
The APPG meeting provided an opportunity to explore these issues in more detail and hear expert perspectives. Here I summarise some of the key issues that were discussed:
While it is often said that COVID-19 does not discriminate, it is increasingly evident that the government and employers need to do more to ensure the crisis does not perpetuate existing inequalities related to sex, social class and ethnicity. There remain safety issues for staff in many occupations returning to their place of work. Many women and BAME staff feel afraid to raise safety issues at work as they fear they will not be listened to or will face punitive measures if they voice concerns. My research has shown that such behaviour is often subtle, so difficult to identify and challenge. As I highlighted to the APPG, it is even more important that employers are alert to power imbalances and the risk of increased discrimination at this time.
Anyone with a family who is working from home will be disadvantaged during COVID-19, but women more so, since the bulk of caring and home schooling falls on women according to recent evidence.
My own anecdotal evidence of hearing about women’s experiences rings true here. Examples include the woman returning to work after maternity leave who can’t hire a nanny or get a nursery place, so is juggling full time work with a six-month old baby. Drawing on my research into women’s experiences of maternity breaks prior to the Covid-19 crisis, I recommended that greater flexibility from employers is needed to support those in with family and caring responsibilities at this particularly difficult time.
My research has previously revealed the caring divide in households. Therefore, another key issue that I highlighted to the APPG is that there are currently the countless women dealing with the rollercoaster of emotions that children of school age have experienced over the long weeks of home schooling and absence from friends. Add to that an emotionally demanding job – think healthcare, education, etc., then it is likely there will be far reaching implications for women’s wellbeing too.
I argued that not only has COVID-19 reinforced the gender divide and removed the choice for many women, it is becoming evident that in many professions it is skewing the playing field.
In recent years I have contributed to research perspectives on women’s leadership in higher education, so it was of interest that I read recently about the impact of COVID-19 on women’s careers. This shows research publications are plummeting for women but increasing for men. While some of this may be attributable to the caring divide, it calls for greater awareness that the lockdown is privileging some and adding to workloads of others who are called on to take on to undertake additional responsibilities in the crisis.
My call to the Government and employers is to ensure the COVID-19 crisis does not widen workplace inequalities further.