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Why we can’t let Covid derail progress towards gender equality

By Simon Winfield, Managing Director, Hays UK & Ireland

This month not only marks International Women’s Day, but it is also a year since the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated the UK’s first nationwide lockdown.

Marking these two anniversaries so close together should make us reflect on how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women. We recently conducted a poll on LinkedIn, in which respondents were asked how the Covid-19 crisis had impacted gender equality in the workplace. Almost two thirds said there has been no change to inequality, and over a quarter said it had contributed to a worsening in inequality. Just over one in ten said they felt gender inequality had improved during this time.

We are not alone in our findings. According to several reports, women are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, with headlines predicting a ‘she-cession’ rather than a recession. There are numerous factors contributing to this – including the fact that women are more likely to work in sectors most affected by the crisis, such as hospitality or retail. Furthermore, the closing of schools has significantly increased the burden of unpaid care for women, making it harder than ever for many to juggle their career and their personal responsibilities.

This International Women’s Day, as we reflect upon the impact the pandemic has had on women, we should ask ourselves: what steps can we all take to help drive better gender equality in our workplaces?

1. Take decisive action to address unconscious bias

Any push towards gender parity begins by tackling entrenched ideas about women’s role in society and similar gender stereotypes. Remember: unconscious bias may not be deliberate or present as overt sexism, but it is no less insidious. As individuals, we must reflect on our own unconscious biases, how we may have contributed to a less-than-inclusive workplace in the past and look to move forward by consciously practicing respect and inclusivity.

Employers and business leaders should also take an active role in educating their employees about unconscious bias and the problems it can cause in the workplace – including a negative impact on workplace culture or limiting the potential of female employees. Unconscious bias training can help employees improve in these areas. Our online training platform for your teams, Hays Thrive, offers a range of courses, including a new course to help teams challenge unconscious gender bias in the workplace, which can help everyone contribute to reducing bias.

2. Acknowledge your position and accept feedback

Being a better ally to any group requires us to recognise the advantages, opportunities and power that you have been granted – on account of your gender, race, sexual orientation or similar. This isn’t always an easy task, as of course each of us has had our own individual struggles that others may not be privy to. However, it’s important to understand that you can use your position to support others who may have been denied access to achievements for reasons outside their control.

As part of this exercise, seek out and listen to women – or any group that has traditionally been marginalised in the world of work. Ask them about their experiences and – crucially – what steps they would like to see to create greater inclusivity. Once again, employers need to lead here, and consider setting up committees in which representatives from these groups can freely discuss their experiences.

3. Push for positive change

Once you have become aware of unconscious bias and how to tackle it, and accepted the responsibilities that your privilege may afford you, seek out initiatives you can join to help support gender equality and be quick to challenge and call-out inequality where you see it.

Of course, it’s vital you do this in partnership with women – or indeed members of another community you want to be a better ally for. Hear their voices, listen to their ideas, and support and validate what they are saying. Everyone – regardless of gender – has a role to play here. We all have a responsibility to take steps to be a better ally and help create a more inclusive workplace.

Our latest training course, free on Hays Thrive, helps teams to challenge unconscious gender bias in the workplace. Find out more and sign up for free.

About this author

Simon joined Hays in 2006, having commenced his recruitment career in 1993. Initially responsible for our businesses in Western Australia and Northern Territory, Simon relocated to the UK in 2014 where he was responsible for our operations in the West & Wales and Ireland, before being appointed Managing Director of the UK & Ireland business in 2018.

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