In this article, Caroline Waters OBE, Interim Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission shares her insights on how the coronavirus pandemic has brought about positive change for women in the world of work, and how we can retain these changes in their future.

Since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted our personal and professional lives, some of the long-held barriers to helping women get into and progress at work have started to be dismantled. Observing this has led me to reflect on how retaining these gains and making further changes could address gender inequality and enable women to reach their full potential.  

Firstly, the new flexibility we’ve seen from thousands of employers which happened practically overnight in March has shown that businesses can be agile and continue to deliver, even during major disruption. Employers have scaled up flexible working practices and rolled them out without formality, forms or having to justify a business case to shareholders because it simply made sense. A lack of flexible working hours and work patterns has held women back at work for a long time and it’s precisely this flexibility we at the Equality and Human Rights Commission have been calling for.

Increased workplace flexibility in Britain’s labour market can unlock professional opportunities for women who juggle work and caring responsibilities. If it’s the norm for every role at every level we may even see persistent gender, race and disability pay gaps diminish. Increasing women’s access to work, and promoting family friendly policies such as flexible working, access to Paternity and Shared Parental Leave means men will be more likely to take on caring responsibilities because it’s what father tell us they want to do and because it can be the new norm. We can end the cultural stigma that mean these polices exist only on paper and not where they belong at the heart of the workplace; available as the day 1, default position for every role. Doing this will make balancing work and home life a genuinely affordable choice for both parents. We urge employers to continue offering flexible working, and to develop new and innovative ways to help parents and carers, and disabled people, participate to the best of their ability.

The pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have lifted the curtain on the entrenched disadvantage that ethnic minority people, and women in particular experience in the world of work. Very few ethnic minority women hold senior positions in workplaces for example and are over represented in lower skilled and lower paid roles. So how can we seize this opportunity to address inequality?

Workforce data helps pinpoint the issues that are holding back ethnic minority workers in the workplace and enables employers to make informed decisions on how to address these. By considering the specific issues affecting workers with multiple characteristics, such as race and gender, employers are able to develop nuanced and specific steps to increase opportunities. It’s been encouraging to see major employers such as Zurich Insurance and BP publicly recognise that truly diverse business must reflect their customers and communities. Both these employers will be reporting on their ethnicity pay gap and implementing action plans to close them. Our hope is that all employers with 250 or more staff will start reporting on the recruitment, retention and progression of ethnic minority employees, and develop time bound target driven action plans to address ethnicity pay and employment gaps.

There is no doubt that the sharp focus, brought by the recent debate on race inequality at work has seen employers act on the need to take practical steps to understand and deal with these inequities.  Bias behaviours aren’t just exhibited by an individual manager or colleague but built up around systems and sometimes processes that allow those behaviours to thrive. Many employers are introducing diversity and bias awareness training. This is an important first step, equipping people with a way to interrupt their own biases and make sure that policies are informed by only the relevant factors. Its not a silver bullet however and change won’t happen overnight. Ask yourself for example what your recruitment and promotional processes look like, how you interact with your customers and whether these approaches hold any bias to one particular group.  

Of course, there are other gendered workplace issues that still require attention. With thousands of people working from home as a result of the pandemic, it would be easy to think that sexual harassment has suddenly stopped. But that would be short-sighted. There’s evidence that sexual harassment has evolved as a result of remote working, with increasing reports of online harassment and abuse. This demonstrates the very real need to tackle this issue at a behavioural level and to use the full range of penalties available to employers to chase it from every work space.

The effects of harassment on women are damaging, long-lasting and profound, and they harm employers. All harassment is unacceptable. We may tell ourselves that it is inevitable but it doesn’t have to be. Women who experience sexual harassment in work whether remotely or in-person need to be supported. Every employer has a legal responsibility to prevent and respond to this, and to take action to change culture and behaviours to eradicate harassment in the workplace. I strongly recommend that employers follow the practical steps outlined in the Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance available on our website. Don’t wait until offices re-open action is needed now as we interact virtually.

The unprecedented increase in domestic violence and the rapid rise in home-working since the onset of the pandemic means Governments and employers should use their powers and resources to keep those who are experiencing domestic abuse safe at home and safe at work. Simply making a call privately may no longer be possible. The additional challenge of not being able to talk to colleagues or a manager and access information, services and support confidentially during working hours, mean that survivors are facing increased risk. It is really important that employers act now to implement and promote a domestic abuse policy and consider offering survivors paid leave, financial support or relocation if possible.

It’s vitally important that we take these opportunities now to move forward towards a fairer workplace for all women, including disabled women, parents, carers and ethnic minority women. The pandemic has pushed the UK into a recession already and a huge number of job losses are sadly expected to follow in the sectors where women are over-represented. We know from research that certain groups, particularly women with children, are harder hit by a recession and, with the end of the furlough scheme on the horizon, employers may decide that a mother who has been working reduced hours to juggle childcare through lockdown, or the disabled employee who will need reasonable adjustments to return to a remodelled COVID-secure office, are the ideal candidates to make redundant. Employers need to make sure that they don’t discriminate directly or indirectly, and those difficult decisions are made fairly. We can and must build a better, stronger fairer workplace for all women.  Prior to the pandemic, under the Good Work Plan, the UK Government began work on creating more inclusive and progressive workplace approaches, and we want to see these commitments progressed. We believe that Britain’s economic recovery should be based on the principles of equality and human rights. Rebuilding our economy depends on the barriers I’ve set out above being removed so that women are able to contribute their skills and experience to secure a better future for everyone.

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Caroline Waters OBE, Interim Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission shares her insights on how the pandemic has brought about positive change for working women.

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