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11 January 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:21am

How Covid-19 could be a great leveller for women at work

The pandemic raises new questions about gender balance in the labour market.

By Caroline Nokes MP

​If one were forced to look for the positives of Covid-19 and the thoroughly miserable year we have all just endured, then surely the upside is that many of us have discovered that working flexibly, from home, is not only possible, but can also be successful. And it has been a feature of the workplace supported by men as well as women.

The pandemic has been a great leveller, and we have been in the same boat, or stuck on the same Zoom call, and those female employees who had previously had requests to work from home rejected by male bosses have suddenly been able to demonstrate that it could work. Productivity might go up, not down, as we ditch the daily commute, for example.

But – there is always a but – the home-working revolution did not apply to everyone equally. Yes, large numbers of both male and female employees found they could work from home, but many could not. And juggling childcare responsibilities while conducting Zoom calls is not always easy; and during the course of the pandemic this burden has fallen predominantly on female shoulders. We may have laughed at the children that appeared in the background of Zoom calls, or interviews, but there were many times when women looked anxious, genuinely worried that colleagues would judge them for the inability to manage home-working and childcare responsibilities.

Read more: An equitable future

It did and does not stop there. For professional people, home-working is an option, but those in front-line public service roles, or working in retail, or transport, or a myriad of other sectors, cannot work from home. There is a requirement to be physically present at a workplace, which is all but impossible when your child’s school, or nursery or childminder has been forced to shut because of the pandemic.

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The government, and the education sector in its widest sense, has worked incredibly hard to keep settings open in the second lockdown and regardless of tier, but there are still outbreaks of the virus where classes, or year groups, or bubbles have to be sent home to isolate, and as Mumsnet found in a recent survey, that is when the care was most likely to be given by a mother. Over three-quarters (76 per cent) of Mumsnet users indicated that they had not been able to work uninterrupted due to childcare commitments, and 35 per cent of them felt their partners had not been affected in the same way.

We know the sectors in which women are most likely to be employed are also the ones staring at a pretty bleak future. Fifty-eight per cent of retail workers are female, and we have already seen enormous redundancies from some high street stalwarts, such as John Lewis and Boots, not to mention the collapse of Arcadia. Who would have ever thought that Topshop jeans would go out of fashion? But retailers have not been able to compete with the online offer of major fast fashion outlets. And hospitality is also on its knees: curfews, customers only being able to eat inside with their family or support bubble, and a total closure in tier three areas in the run-up to Christmas all mean the sector is suffering, and again it is a big employer of women, especially young women.

Read more: Why my generation will fight for gender justice at work

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When we went into the pandemic female employment was at a record high. My big fear is that when we come out we will have slipped back to the 1970s. Those of us who revelled in home-working at the beginning might well be looking at the bleak employment prospects of our children and trying to help them plot a path through to recovery.

But it need not all be doom and gloom. Some of the schemes put in place have huge potential for giving young people the help they need: the Kickstart Scheme, for example, encouraging employers to give young people a hand on to the first rung of the employment ladder, and the initiatives around green growth and jobs in green technology. Apprenticeships, meanwhile, really do provide a sensible alternative to university, enabling young people to earn and learn at the same time. But how about setting some of these roles aside for girls, recognising the appalling impact the pandemic has had on their prospects.

Nearly a third (29 per cent) of women in work expect to see their earnings reduced over the next six months, as employers reduce their hours. The threat of redundancy is real, and as many firms are forced to make difficult choices, it does create the “cover” for those who might seek to terminate the employment of those who would otherwise be protected. Pregnant women and new mums are feeling especially vulnerable, and are not confident about their employment future.

Read more: In numbers: the workplace gender gap

I have no doubt the Department for Work and Pensions is already plotting its way through this challenge, and trying to find ways to make sure women get their fair share of the new opportunities which are being supported. For example, let’s try to make green technology attractive to women. Let’s make sure that when identifying those who finished their education without A-levels, and who are now entitled to funding for adult education, that there is a real effort to find the women among them.

Throughout the pandemic we know women have done the greatest proportion of caring, whether for the young or the elderly. We know they have been in front-line NHS roles in large numbers. We know they have been on the supermarket checkout enabling us to get our groceries. We know now there need to be solutions to make sure their employment chances are not disproportionately affected, because many of them are scared that they are.

This article originally appeared in a Spotlight report on the future of work. Click here to download the full edition.

Caroline Nokes MP is chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.