I founded my company, The Tall Wall, in order to help women fulfil their potential at work, because I believe that gender diversity enriches business, families and society. Noticeable progress towards gender equality has been made. There are more women in the C-Suite – 44% of companies studied by McKinsey in its recent report, “Women in the Workplace” have three or more women in their C-suite, up from 29% five years ago. Yes it is slow, but it is moving in the right direction and, in the words of McKinsey, “there are bright spots on the horizon”.
Will the impact of Covid 19 accelerate us towards greater gender diversity, or set the cause back? That the future is unclear is an understatement, but there are factors that will likely accelerate gender diversity – and also those that will inhibit it.
- Let’s take the obvious one first: working from home. When we ask working parents what would be most helpful in the workplace, flexible working invariably tops the list. Pre-lockdown many organisations created agile working policies and generally talked a good game when it came to flexibility, but the reality was that agile working was not embedded in the DNA of many of these organisations – they didn’t really live and breathe it – until now. If lockdown means working from home will persist for many weeks to come there will be a seismic shift in the extent to which leaders trust their employees to work in a more agile way. And perhaps the implications of trust around remote working will have a positive impact on the degree of trust in the workplace more broadly. There will be a greater focus on outcomes not inputs, and this single factor alone will have a huge impact on how people work, and an enormous disproportionate benefit to women who have caring responsibilities.
- Rebalancing of family values: Dame Helena Morrissey, in a recent interview with The Telegraph, highlighted how men in her network were enjoying the extra time they were getting with their families, eating meals together every day for example. Being at home in lockdown is, for many, resulting in a greater recognition of what is involved in running a home and a family. When we move beyond this crisis, we predict more men will ask to work flexibly and this may, in turn, create a subtle shift in the default status of women as the primary carers.
- In the old way of things, informal opportunities to get exposure – going down the pub for drinks after work, staying late in the office, joining a client social event etc. – were enjoyed by those who did not have competing demands in the home (mainly, let’s face it, men). Now we are seeing that in working from home these advantages have been stripped away and so everyone has the same opportunity to influence and shine. There is potentially more of a level playing now for women to be noticed and valued, although the risk is that this will fall away once we move to some form of new normal.
- Women as role models: Many key workers are women (75% of all frontline NHS staff are female for example). Will we recognise these key workers as having a greater value in society? And will this in turn impact our view of women’s roles in society too? Might greater recognition of female workers positively impact the gender pay gap for example?
- Valuing stereotypically female traits. Women leaders have been applauded for their approach to the crisis. It’s a long list headed by Angela Merkle and Jacinda Arden. These women have demonstrated their ability to listen (and I mean really listen), empathise and taking decisive action. On a more micro level, the need to connect with, listen and truly consider the wellbeing of others is now top of the list for the organisations we are working with. Men can and do demonstrate these qualities of course! But many of our structures – corporate and otherwise – have been built by alpha men for alpha men and the traits that are valued within them are, naturally, often alpha male ones. We hope that warmer traits traditionally (but not exclusively) associated with women will be more sought after and rewarded going forward. Heather Bewers, of Change is an Opportunity, believes that there is an opportunity to go further, “With an increased need and recognition of a different set of traits needed to deal with a fragile, complex Post Covid world – the ability to think holistically, to compromise, to be tolerant of ambiguity – to hold a variety of possible futures rather than ‘the right solution’. These are by no means exclusively female traits but they are not rarely found in traditional alpha male style leadership – and hence a platform for change.”
- Women are already losing their jobs at a faster rate than men and this shows no sign of slowing. A recent study by The Institute of Fiscal Studies revealed that women were about one-third more likely than men to work in a sector that has been shut down. The report showed that one in six female employees worked for businesses hit by the lockdown, compared with one in seven of their male counterparts.
- And when we do return to hiring…the tendency may be for hiring managers to revert to the perceived “safe” option of hiring more men into roles than women. As human beings we are programmed to seek safety and certainty, and this often plays out in hiring decisions when unconscious bias means leaders hire in their own image. History tells us this tends to happen in times of economic uncertainty. Post crisis, will we cling ever tighter to the western societal norms of men being the breadwinner? Dominie Moss, founder of The Return Hub, a specialist recruitment firm placing professionals post a career break, warns against this, “There is a danger that as costs are squeezed to an even greater extent recruiting will be boiled to down to the lowest common denominator – those easy to find, assess and attract because they come from one’s own network rather than doing the difficult work of finding diverse talent with non-linear career paths, and these are more often than not, women whose careers tend to be more nuanced than a traditional career ladder. It will be fascinating to see which companies really do have diversity and great gender balance at the heart of what they do and those that have been just ticking the box. In the post-match analysis of Covid 19 it will be easy to tell the difference.”
- A longer term move to a virtual world may accelerate the adoption of automation. The traditional view is that women will be more severely affected by automation than men, since administrative, process and other junior-middle management tasks (more often than not performed by women) are likely to be front in line to be automated.
- Aside from these big picture forces at play I also want to highlight some of the reverting to type behaviours we see in homes of our clients, friends and family. It is curious that in dual income households, men are more often than not occupying the formal study area. In my own household my husband has taken over my study – the room that was my office for more than two years. In my case, I have discovered that there is more natural light and a far stronger Wi-Fi signal in the spare bedroom, but let’s not tell him that! Looking at this more broadly though, there seems to be an unspoken acknowledgement that men’s roles are more deserving of the designated workspace – why is this and what does it tell us about our tendency to revert to deeply ingrained stereotypes even in the face of this opportunity for change?
Whatever the factors that play out over the coming weeks, months and years it would be a grave mistake for business to lose sight of the need for inclusion in all its forms. We know from the last financial crisis that the lack of cognitive diversity was a destructive force in banking and related sectors. If business is to learn from the impact of Covid 19 and become more agile, innovative and responsive as a result, it needs to push ever harder to support the very best talent for the future – and the evidence is overwhelming that in practice this means accessing different skills, perspectives and ways of thinking.
This article was written by Helen Cowan, Founder of The Tall Wall and Executive Coach for The Return Hub and was originally published on LinkedIn.