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By 6 August 2021 | Categories: feature articles

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By Michelle Senecal de Fonseca, Global VP, Cloud Innovation Strategic Partnerships, Citrix

In early 2020, for the first time in history, there were more women in the US workforce than men. After decades of tireless work and campaigning, this was a huge milestone in the drive for equality between the genders. And then Covid hit, and in April 2020, 55% of US job losses were felt by women - 5.4m in total. In December, women accounted for 100% of the 1,400 net job losses in the US economy.

This depressing data isn’t unique to the US. Globally, women’s job losses due to Covid-19 are 1.8 times greater than men’s, according to McKinsey. The same report says that women make up 39 percent of global employment but account for 54 percent of overall job losses.

The bottom line is that this pandemic has set gender equality back three decades. We haven’t seen such low levels of female participation in the workforce since the early Eighties.

And yet, there are opportunities for women as a result of the pandemic. As we start to consider life post-pandemic, we have an opportunity to build back better, and ensure that the “new normal” is a better place for women in the workforce. So what can business leaders do to make this happen? Here are my thoughts on where we can start:

Remote and flexible working must be here to stay

According to recent research by Citrix which polled 1000 workers in the UK, only 12% want to return to an office every day, post-pandemic, and 62% think that businesses who don’t offer remote working options will lose out on top talent. The ability to work anywhere, at any time, has become a business imperative with the potential to benefit both employers and employees, regardless of gender.

But it might have even greater potential for women. In 2019, the ONS found that women may be sacrificing salary in exchange for shorter journeys to work, creating the so-called “commuting pay gap”. Analysis of official data found that longer commutes were associated with higher pay for both men and women, but that women spent 20 per cent less time traveling to work. If we remove that need to commute, women may be more willing to pursue and accept better, higher-level jobs which they would previously have ruled out due to the location of the office.

Recognise part-time work as real work

Moving to part-time and flexible working hours is common when women become mothers. But often, the reality of the situation is that this flexibility comes at a cost, and they find themselves still working a full-time job, with the same expectations and KPIs, for 20 or 40 per cent less money. As well as hindering women’s careers and even leading to burnout, this further embeds the gender pay gap.

If part-time workers are still delivering on their full-time goals, does it actually matter how long they’re sitting at their desks? By adopting a more goal-oriented approach, businesses ensure that flexible workers are paid for the contribution that they deliver. Valuing outcomes over hours spent may take the form of a flexible work policy, or a compressed work week, or any number of other combinations, as long as they work for both the employee and the employer. And by offering these work schedules to all employees, we can start to break down the stigma of the “mummy track”.

I’ve seen this personally during the pandemic. A neighbour who is a partner in a law firm has been working flexibly since her youngest child was born, for significantly reduced pay. When the pandemic hit, she suddenly saw all her male peers moving to the same flexible working model without an impact to their salaries. She raised this with her managers and successfully negotiated a promotion and full-time salary based on her full-time deliverables. This wouldn’t have been possible if her employers had taken a narrow view on the relationship between salary and hours worked, and in the long run, they’d most likely have lost a talented and valuable employee.

Support men’s and women’s home lives equally

The jury’s out on whether men are doing more housework and childcare as a result of the Covid crisis (it tends to depend who you ask). But lockdown has undeniably brought about an opportunity for families to establish greater balance between paid work, housework, and childcare. While business leaders don’t have control of what goes on in their employees’ homes, we do have an opportunity to support families in finding a more gender-balanced equilibrium.

A strong first step to supporting equality at home is to offer generous and equal parental leave. At Citrix, we offer all new parents five months’ paid leave, regardless of gender. By doing this, we make parental leave a business issue, rather than a women’s issue. Beyond this, leaders should make it clear that they support both men and women in their family life; sometimes this can be as simple as just asking men about their families. And leaders (especially men) must role model the behaviours they’d like to see, whether this is being vocal about their attendance at school events, avoiding booking early or late meetings that might clash with nursery drop-offs, or enacting a flexible work policy where “EOP” actually means midnight… or even 8am the next day. It’s got to start from the top, and the majority need to do it – men as well as women.

Watch out for location bias

For me, one of the clearest benefits of the forced move to a 100% remote workforce is the democratisation of organisations. Even in multi-national corporations, there is a tendency to display location bias and work most closely with the people in your geography. When everyone is just a video call away, it’s easier to have more people “in the room”, and access better diversity of thought. This leads to a more even playing field, because when they can’t just turn to the person next to them, managers can take a step back and really consider who is the best person for the job.

Of course, this is an opportunity for people of all genders. But we do need to be careful that on returning to the office, we don’t lose this opportunity to improve. Many businesses will likely move to a “hybrid” model of working, where employees have the choice to work from home or the office from one day to the next. In this scenario, we must ensure that the office itself doesn’t become a “clubhouse” for one particular group who choose to work there, whether that’s older workers who don’t need to be home to collect their children from school, or younger workers who value the opportunity to socialise with colleagues. Leaders need to be aware of the culture in the office and quickly mitigate any situation where it is becoming less inclusive. 

Don’t be put off by gaps in CVs

Historically, mothers are most likely to have gaps in their CVs as a result of taking time out for childcare reasons. And with women most likely to have lost or left their jobs due to Covid, this potential barrier will be more widespread than ever post-pandemic. Managers and recruiters shouldn’t be put off by gaps in CVs, and should instead look at how they can support women (and men) returning to the workforce. Do you have a return to work programme? Can you provide support for those looking be reskilled? Could you provide “returnships,” such as those offered by Amazon and Facebook?

The pandemic may also expedite certain workplace trends that would otherwise have taken much longer to come to fruition. In our recent Work 2035 report, Citrix found that over half (54%) of UK professionals believe remote, gig and contract workers will make up a majority of the workforce by 2035. Post-pandemic, it’s quite possible that this number would be even higher, and both employers and individuals may need to view career paths in a slightly different way to get people back into the economy.

Finally, don’t forget that gaps in CVs often mask time spent developing valuable skills. In our capitalist society, we rarely value what we don’t pay for, but you show me a parent who has spent lockdown home-schooling three children of different grades, and I’ll show you a master negotiator with cutting-edge time management skills and a minor degree in tech support!

It took us three decades to get to where we were before Covid. We won’t be able to get that back overnight. But as business leaders, we have an opportunity to help create a more inclusive society, and build back better than we were before.

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