The new gender politics of return-to-work

Written by Emily Hill Tuesday 01 December 2020
As part of CMI’s Management Transformed research project, we explored how Covid-19 workplace transformation has impacted women with children

2020 has changed everyone’s lives, disrupting not only our personal circumstances but our professional ones. As we reflect on the year, we’re thinking about the working parents who have not only had to deal with remote working or furlough, but also looking after and potentially home-schooling their children while juggling work.

As Dame Stephanie Shirley told CMI’s CEO, Ann Francke OBE in July: “Lockdown has really impacted women adversely. A higher proportion of women were furloughed in this country and lost their jobs worldwide with the economic problems associated with lockdown than men.”

In the UK analysis from the Women’s Budget Group has shown that 133,000 more women were furloughed than men in 2020, and also represented the majority of furloughed workers in all areas of the UK except the West Midlands. Further research by the COVID inequality project and the Institute of Fiscal Studies have both found that women, and in particular mothers, have been more likely to have lost jobs or to be furloughed than men across Europe. In the US, 11.5m women lost their jobs between February and May, compared to 9m men, according to research by the Pew Research Center. A report focusing on Bangladesh shows that the industries with a predominantly female staffbase such as garment-making will be significantly impacted in terms of employment due to Covid-19. This problem isn’t localised to the UK: all over the world, women are facing not only higher risk of furlough, but also increased childcare due to lockdowns and school closures.

“Where people have been able to work at home, further challenges have arisen with juggling the additional care burden of children in the home and home-schooling. This has meant that some parents (predominantly women) have been forced to reduce their hours or leave their jobs to be able to manage the competing demands of paid and unpaid labour,” this European Parliament report states. “Those who were able to take reduced or voluntary leave/furlough now face greater concerns as their work may be viewed as non-essential, placing women disproportionately at risk of unemployment and job cuts in future.”

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the world of work so CMI has polled over 2000 senior leaders, managers and employees to explore how the extraordinary challenges and new ways of working that emerged in 2020 have impacted on the workforce. These are detailed in Management Transformed: Managing a Marathon Crisis.

A  key conclusion was that it’s not actually where we work that determines our productivity and job satisfaction; it’s how we’re managed and led. This means that all managers no matter which gender  have a unique opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of women right now. A complex aspect within this is working mothers: how can we support this group of women who need a different type of management than others in the team? How can leadership be tailored to their needs, too?

Our Management Transformed research found that:

  • Pre-pandemic, 42% of women with children said that flexibility from their employer around their current needs around work was a top five priority, compared to just 28% of men with children.
  • When it comes to their working environments, more working mothers than working fathers said they missed the office, as it had fewer distractions than their home-working set-up (38% of women compared to 28% of men).
  • Of those now working virtually, 69% of women with children said they wanted to work at least one day from home when the pandemic ends, compared to 56% of men with children.

Despite this, we know from ONS data, that women still continue to shoulder more childcare responsibilities and so they need to be proactively supported as they cope with the demands of their employment alongside their caregiving responsibilities. This is particularly important if we are to continue to promote gender balance, progression, and equal pay - especially at senior levels - in our work culture. Good managers will no doubt know that all employees have a right to reasonable adjustments to their working environment to ensure they can perform well. This isn’t just an issue for parents, but this is symbolic of wider issues across organisations globally.

But the key takeaway - in the present context - is to prioritise communication. Shockingly, women with children have less contact with their managers than men with children and 29% are in communication less than once a week – this isn’t good enough. No matter their personal situation, all employees have a right to equal access to their managers. If we lose those vital communication touch points, we risk alienating these employees and missing out on their skills and experience, which can inform organisational decisions.

Ultimately, Covid-19 or no Covid-19, working mothers need to be heard.

You can read Management Transformed: Managing a Marathon Crisis in full to see the other aspects of everyday leadership and management have changed over the past year – and how our skills need to adapt to the situation.

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