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Georgina Hardcastle

HR Consultant - Uckfield

20th April 2022

The unequal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in employment

The unequal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in employment

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely changed the employment landscape for all.  This article looks specifically at the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women in employment. Experts have warned that ‘women’s workplace equality will have been set back decades by this crisis’ (The Fawcett Society). Is it possible that the pandemic has in fact exacerbated pre-existing gender inequalities?

Over-representation of women in vulnerable sectors

A much greater number of women than men dominated employment in the sectors hardest hit by COVID-19, including retail and accommodation, hospitality and food services and personal care. It’s been estimated that women were a third more likely to be employed in sectors that were ‘shut down’, resulting in women bearing the brunt of the highest number of job losses.

Research has suggested that the gender impact of the pandemic was predictable given that women, particularly black and ethnic minority women, were disproportionately employed in these sectors – known for their low pay and job insecurity. Studies have found that those in insecure work, including zero-hours arrangements and temporary employment, suffered a much greater decrease in earnings and hours over the pandemic than those on more secure contracts.

Evidence indicates that women in roles outside sectors hardest hit by the pandemic were disproportionately impacted by the Furlough Scheme. Leading economists have found that women were significantly more likely to be furloughed than men who were doing the same type of job. Interestingly, they also found that 75% of furloughed men had their wages topped up by their employer compared to only 65% of women. Research by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership identified that women who were furloughed were also more likely to be furloughed for longer periods than men.

‘Women started this crisis from a position of economic disadvantage. We’re worried the impact on women’s earnings and employment prospects will widen existing gender inequalities…’ (UK Women’s Budget Group).

Women combining work and caring responsibilities

The pandemic caused significant disruption to care responsibilities. This exacerbated existing inequalities by increasing the amount of unpaid caring undertaken by women. As the schools and childcare facilities closed, studies have shown that childcare and home-schooling duties fell predominantly on women. The Institute of Fiscal Studies found that mothers found it harder to work productively from home during the pandemic due to the additional time devoted to childcare than by men.

In a survey of nearly 20,000 mothers and pregnant women conducted by leading charity ‘Pregnant Then Screwed’, 72% of the mothers surveyed had to work fewer hours because of childcare issues. Of the employed mothers, 81% needed childcare to be able to do their job, but 51% did not have the necessary childcare provision in place to enable them to work. In many cases, this has led to women exiting the workplace altogether.

From a personal perspective, particularly during the first lockdown, I found home-schooling two primary school aged children and working one of the hardest challenges I’ve faced during my career.  During that time, the school had not arranged structured remote learning and the burden fell to me to spend countless evening hours researching and planning constructive learning for two children of different ages. My thoughts extend to all the working mothers who faced similar challenges.

An additional point to note is that furlough was not initially clearly articulated as a right for those with caring responsibilities. In the Women and Equalities Committee report on the gendered economic impact of COVID-19, it was reported that while the government had ‘acted at considerable speed to protect jobs’, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme overlooked the ‘specific and well-understood labour market and caring inequalities faced by women’, resulting in government policies being viewed as ‘heavily gendered in nature’ and ‘skewed towards male-dominated sectors’.

Suspension of gender pay gap reporting: Will the missing data further set back gender equality?

In March 2020, due to the impact of the pandemic, the government suspended enforcement of mandatory gender pay gap reporting for organisations with over 250 staff for the 2019/2020 period. According to Business in the Community, as a result of the legal requirement being lifted, only half filed any gender pay gap data. This has been viewed as a ‘worrying sign of attitudes towards gender equality during the crisis’ particularly as current data shows that eight out of 10 organisations with more than 250 staff still pay men more than women.

With evidence indicating that women have been especially hard hit by the pandemic in terms of job losses, reduced hours and an abundance of new challenges to their work/life balance, there is a real risk that women’s progress will stagnate or even move backwards.

What will the move towards remote working mean for gender parity in the workplace?

On the one hand, the huge shift towards remote and flexible working has opened up opportunities for many women, particularly working mothers. On the other, it has been suggested that remote working could hinder women’s career progression.

Reports have indicated that companies may start to develop a ‘two track’ approach to employment which ‘favours office-based workers over those working remotely’. This raises concerns that ‘women would be far more likely to land in the latter category’ (Catherine Mann, economist at the Bank of England) particularly given that women are failing to return to work to the same extent as men after the pandemic, and when they are, they are more likely to be working from home.

While virtual platforms are far more advanced than prior to 2020, a concern raised by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and others is that working from home could exclude women from the informal, social aspects of the office as well as missing out on learning and career opportunities made available to office-based colleagues through regular face-to-face interaction.

What can employers do to help advance women’s working lives post pandemic?

We are yet to understand the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in employment. In the meantime, however, it’s important for employers to take steps to ensure that women continue to advance in the workplace.

  • Embed flexible working into the culture of the organisation and make it ‘the norm’: to help with the retention and progression of women.
  • Provide enhanced paternity and shared parental leave benefits: to encourage more men to take leave and assist with childcare duties, helping to reduce the burden on women.
  • Advertise roles with flexible working or adopt an organisation-wide ‘hybrid working policy’: this may lead to more women applying and could help in attracting more women to senior roles – helping to reduce the gender pay gap.
  • Lead with empathy: open and supportive conversations are more important than ever, given the disruption to working lives post pandemic;
  • Promote innovation and create ways to develop and learn: having meaningful platforms for career growth, such as access to professional development courses via digital learning. Ensure that opportunities are offered in a variety of ways – and times – to ensure that more women can benefit from them, such as hosting networking events which don’t exclude women who have childcare responsibilities.
  • Ensure reward and promotion are free from unconscious bias: have in place, objective methods of evaluating performance contribution, including in relation to remote work.
  • Reinforce equality and diversity in organisations: Non-inclusive behaviours in the workplace (such as exclusion from meetings) can happen both in the office or remotely – these issues need to be addressed through diversity training and zero-tolerance policies.

As we start to rebuild from the pandemic, we have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to address gender equality in the workplace. Whilst there’s no doubt that society’s attitudes towards gender equality in employment have progressed significantly, today’s reality is that we still have a long road ahead of us.

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