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How women can harness the silver lining of COVID-19 for their careers

Dr Maggi Evans, Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant and Coach, Mosaic Consulting

  • Data suggests that women have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in terms of redundancy and the amount of time they are committing to domestic and educational responsibilities. But there are also some emerging employment trends that could open up new and exciting opportunities for women.
  • The pandemic has caused many employers to challenge their assumptions about work and how/where/when it is conducted. This heralds a new era of flexibility which women can benefit from. Women are also well positioned to take advantage of changing consumer habits, and use the crisis as an opportunity for career adaptation or reinvention. To make the most of these opportunities we need to continue to invest in our learning and to upskill.
  • Now is a good time to #choosetochallenge the next chapter of our career story and to find work we love that enables us to use our skills, resources and experiences in new ways.

For the past 12 months there has been a significant focus on the particular challenges faced by women during the COVID-19 crisis. For example, research indicates a higher unemployment risk for women as a result of the pandemic, plus unequal shares of household and domestic chores, including home schooling. The UN has also indicated that the pandemic could herald a massive step backwards in the quest for gender equality. 

However, among these statistics, there are also some new opportunities emerging. They are arising as a result of the accelerated changes we are seeing in the way work is structured and done. If we are willing to think differently, to keep learning and to #choosetochallenge, then we may be able to find a silver lining… a chance to rewrite the next chapter of our career story. 

Opportunity one: increased employer flexibility  

The pandemic has necessitated a huge social experiment of mass remote working in many occupations – and most organisations now plan to move into a hybrid model where people work some of the time in an office/facility and some working remotely. As well as flexibility of location, the pandemic has prompted many organisations to be flexible about working hours as their employees juggle additional demands such as childcare or home schooling. According to Gartner, this flexibility of working hours is a trend that will grow as employers start to focus on output (delivery of agreed tasks) rather than input (being present for an agreed number of hours).

These changes are hugely significant for the whole working population, and for working women in particular. Many women have felt limited by the demands of traditional working hours and office locations – working patterns that just don’t fit their lives. As a result, lots of women consciously limit their career progression in order to create space for other things. For some women this creates space for caring and domestic responsibilities, meanwhile, for other women the flexibility gives them the time and space to satisfy other interests, or to help them to continue working whilst managing a chronic health issue. 

The increased appetite for flexibility from employers means that new working opportunities are emerging, giving more women the chance of enjoying satisfying careers and balancing this with other demands or interests – helping to close the gender pay gap on the way. Such changes do not only benefit workers looking for more flexibility, but they also benefit organisations who can use more flexible contracts as a way of attracting, engaging and retaining a wider group of talented women into their workforce – people who would not be attracted by traditional working patterns.

If you’re interested in finding flexible opportunities, then it’s helpful to think what model of working you would really like. What benefits would it bring to you? What benefits would it bring to your employer? How could you start a conversation about making changes with your current role? How can you talk with prospective employers about more flexible ways of working? Each country is likely to have its own legal requirements and advice centres, so check it out and take steps to get the flexibility that will work for you!

Opportunity two: changing consumer habits

There is no doubt that the pandemic has shifted consumer habits. Many people no longer queue for their daily Americano, but as this has declined, the demand for quality in-home coffee equipment has increased. In many parts of the world, gyms are no longer open, which has opened new markets for online fitness instructors, now able to offer their services globally instead of just locally. We’ve seen lots of other innovations, as top restaurants offer menus and ingredients for people to cook at home, and anyone can join online cookery courses from around the world. With these changing habits come new opportunities.

Women have a strong history of entrepreneurship and innovation, particularly in the service and social space. Women starting their own business often work solo (sometimes called ‘solopreneurs’) and typically avoid taking on debt, so start-up costs are often kept to a minimum. Many women entrepreneurs have found ways to pivot or shift their existing business to make it more relevant. Others have been able to open in new markets as time zones and geography become less relevant to how a service is delivered. There has also been a rise in subscription services, with everything from crafting to beauty packs available, and many of these are new offerings as women identify things they miss, things they’re passionate about, and use these as springboards to shape new business opportunities. 

Do you have an idea for a business? Do you want to give something a go? You may want to fully embrace something new or you may want to have it as a ‘side hustle’ to see how it goes. Want some inspiring stories of businesses that have adapted or started? Here are some of my favourites:

Opportunity three: reinvention or adaptation

A crisis has often been used by businesses, government and individuals as a trigger for reinvention or adaptation. As the saying goes, ‘never waste a good crisis’. Psychologically, a crisis is a powerful thing – it is a period of turmoil and upheaval when things we took for granted are challenged, when our assumption about normality is turned on its head. For some, this crisis is immediate. 

Many women have been made redundant from the hospitality or leisure sector, as such they have needed to quickly reinvent their careers to keep their financial independence. Other women have experienced loss, illness or grief in new ways and have started asking questions about their purpose in life and what they really want to do. Consequently, there has been a significant increase in people applying for training in roles like nursing. Others have realised that they’re bored or unsatisfied in their job; they’ve got in a rut and no longer find it stimulating, they are desperate for change. I’ve also heard of women who have so enjoyed a new craft or hobby that they want to make a career from it – and also from some who have found home schooling so fulfilling that they have decided they want to change careers and move into education (and I’ve also heard lots of women saying they used to like the idea of being a teacher but now realise it’s not for them!). 

Reinvention may be radical in nature – a complete change in career and direction. However, it could also be an ‘adaptation’, taking your existing skills and applying them to a new role, perhaps a sideways move, a change to a different function or secondment to a particular project. These changes can feel a bit scary, but they can also be stimulating and energising, helping us to re-engage with our work. 

If you feel at a cross-roads and want (or need) to explore a ‘reinvention’ or an ‘adaptation’, then it’s worth getting some support. You may already know what you want to do differently, but for many people deciding what they want to do is one of the hardest things ever. If you’re looking for a smaller change, then talk to your manager or a recruiter; see what opportunities there might be. It’s also helpful to talk to people in your network – see what help, support and guidance they can offer. 

For more radical changes, there is support and advice out there. Governments often have National Careers Services, and there are lots of helpful articles online. If you have the funds, you can talk with a career coach who can help you to navigate the sometimes overwhelming question, “What do I want to do?” 

One key piece of advice for potential reinventors is to ‘try before you buy’. You may dream of a different role, but you need to check out that any investment (in training, networking, securing a role, etc.) will pay off – that your reinvention is one that you will be happy with.

To harness these exciting career opportunities, we need to step back and think about ourselves. We need to think about our skills, experiences and motivations. We need to be willing to take some control, to shape our futures and to put ourselves in challenging, new situations. We need to invest in developing ourselves and upskilling. We need to build and use our network to support our career.  In a word, we need to invest in our ‘employAgility’.

So, amidst the negativity about the impact of COVID-19 on women’s careers, I hope that I’ve given you some pause for thought. How do you feel about your work? What do you want from the next phase of your working life? If you’re already happy, then that’s fantastic! If things aren’t where you want them to be, then perhaps now is the right time to #choosetochallenge yourself on what you want from the next chapter of your working life. 

Perhaps now is the time to reflect on your immense skills, knowledge and experience and to repackage them in a way that enables you to do work that you love. Perhaps now is an opportunity to take control and make the most of increased flexibility, changing consumer habits and the new horizons of reinvention. Perhaps you can create your own silver lining.

About this author

Maggi is an experienced consultant and coach with international experience across a wide range of sectors including professional services, financial services, retail and FMCG. She is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and combines research and practice to develop practical solutions to drive business improvement.

Maggi has been a consultant for over 20 years, specialising in talent strategy and talent development. She has a reputation as an insightful consultant, helping clients to reduce the ‘noise’ around an issue so they can focus and act on key issues which will make a difference. Maggi is on a mission to help organisations, leaders and individuals to liberate talent. Her first book ‘From Talent Management to Talent Liberation’ has recently been published.

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