The gender gap post-COVID – leaders or laggards?

Progress pre-COVID 

In February this year the fifth and final report from the Hampton-Alexander Review was published. The Review is an independent, voluntary and business-led initiative supported by Government, to increase the representation of women in senior leadership positions and on boards of FTSE 350 companies. It is seen as a ‘bell-weather’ indicator for progress of senior women in business, capturing over 23,000 leadership roles in Britain’s largest listed companies and covers the board and two leadership layers below. It makes the UK’s voluntary approach to improving women’s representation at the top table, arguably the biggest and most ambitious of any country. Even so, progress is slower than it should be, and there is still much more to do. 

In 2016, the Review set a target of 33% women on boards and in leadership and at the time, appeared ambitious and stretching. However, five years later FTSE 350 Boards met and exceeded the target on average. 

  • 220 (65%) FTSE 350 companies achieved the 33% target of women on boards, with a further 15 committed to do so in coming months. 
  • 85 (30%) FTSE 350 companies achieved the target of 33% of women in leadership. Women in FTSE 350 leadership roles increased by almost 20% in the five-year period, albeit the FTSE 350 fell just short of the target on average.  

The UK’s voluntary approach has encouraged learning and insights into the complex barriers and impediments facing women in the workplace, ranging from the obvious to the more subtle. These can dampen women’s expectations of themselves, and their organisation turning them  away from the workplace or impede their progress. Women face personal and social barriers such as gender stereotyping, micro-aggressive behaviours and the double burden of domestic responsibilities in the home, all of which hinder progression. Structural and cultural barriers in the workplace also prevent many women from fully utilising their skills and energy. 

Prior to going into COVID, the UK had made reasonably good progress on women's representation in the workplace at board level. Where progress had been slower was at leadership level. Despite many companies working hard to retain and promote women in leadership, several other companies had struggled to move forward, or hold onto hard-won gains in a challenging year. During 2020 there was very little increase in the number of women in leadership. The impact of COVID-19 has added another layer of complexity to the story. And the full story is about women at all rungs in the career ladder. 

The impact of COVID-19 

From a health perspective, in some areas women have fared better under COVID-19, but structural factors mean that the pandemic has hit women particularly hard both economically and socially. 

ONS data shows that at the end of 2020, 15.49 million women aged 16 or over were in employment, this was down 117,000 from the previous year. It amounts to a drop of 0.6% of the female employment rate compared to a drop of 1.9% for men. Although redundancy levels between men and women are similar, relative to men, women experienced higher levels of job loss during COVID-19 than in previous periods of economic downturn. Analysts anticipate redundancies will continue throughout 2021 with business feeling a delayed shock as Government assistance schemes wind down. 

Women tended to be furloughed more. 133,000 more women than men were furloughed in the first lockdown peak. Between July and October 2020, of a total of 15.3 million jobs furloughed in the UK, 52% were women, despite women only making up 48% of the workforce. And it is women that make up the majority of the workforce in sectors such as hospitality and travel, retail, and the arts which were shut down for around seven months in total. The hospitality sector saw the largest drop in employment. Jobs fell by 243,000 in the 12 months up to December 2020. Women accounted for 60% of the total job losses. Similarly, in wholesale and retail women accounted for 58% per cent of job losses (88,000 out of 152,000). These two industries combined account for around a fifth of all employment in the UK. 

Women also make up the majority of the frontline workforce in the over-stretched NHS, and in the care sector, and retail where homeworking is usually not an option. The industries hardest hit are largely stocked by women. They account for a greater number of keyworker roles, those roles that have faced intense pressure and that have seen the highest occupational mortality rates from COVID-19. 

On top of this, women have taken on the bulk of domestic responsibilities, including home-schooling and additional childcare duties in the past year. ONS data analysis shows women have been carrying out an average of two-thirds more childcare than men following the significant disruption to school and childcare provision during the pandemic. And women make up 58% of unpaid carers in society. There are an estimated 13.6 million unpaid carers in the UK today. The economic value of this in the UK is estimated to be around £77 billion per year. Caring falls particularly on women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. These are women at their most experienced, when they should be at the peak of their career, but they have been either absent from the workplace or doubly burdened.  

We know that the load on women overall has been significant, with some groups of women more affected than others. Mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have either lost or left their job since March 2020. The Fawcett Society found 35% of working mothers have lost work (or hours) due to lack of childcare support during the pandemic. The LSE found that 20.3% of households with dependent children are headed by single mothers, against 3.3% headed by single fathers. Hence, for single parent households, women are far more likely than men to be the sole providers of the sharp increase in childcare during the lock-down. 50% of employed women from minority ethnic groups and 43% of women from White ethnic groups were concerned about job or promotion prospects because of the pandemic. This compares to 35% of employed white men.  

Reporting on the gender pay gap was suspended during the pandemic but official government data from November 2020 suggests the gender pay gap continued to decline in 2020. Among all employees the pay gap was 15.5% in 2020, down from 17.4% in 2019. The gap remained close to zero for full-time employees aged under 40 years but was over 10% for older age groups. Equality Trust analysis in November 2020 found a small average decline in the overall gender gap reported of 0.5%, but the reported average bonus gap was up by almost 200%. Two-thirds of the 20 employers with the largest gender pay gaps in 2019 did not report voluntarily in 2020, which could store up bad news for 2021 reports. 

Why we need to get this right, and act now 

The road to gender equality in the workplace and in society is a long one, despite the progress we have made so far. The impact of COVID has served to shine a further spotlight on the many areas we have yet to get right. Both the statistics and the anecdotes show how tough this has been for everyone, but in particular for women: they are more represented in redundancies and in furlough, work in some of the hardest hit sectors and in many instances bear the double burden of work and caring responsibilities. Yet few are talking about this. COVID-19 has worsened a situation in which we already needed to redouble efforts. As the economy begins to recover, we need to support women in the transition back, involve more men in the home and the education of their young and ensure the gains around equal pay and access to careers and leadership, which have been hard fought in recent decades, do not rescind or slide backwards as employers look to rebuild for their recovery. 

I feel extremely proud to be part of a new project, launched by Pearson in May, to look at exactly this. A panel of 12 extraordinary experts from across education, politics and employment are holding five evidence sessions with key witnesses into the autumn. A final report will be published in November, looking at how widening inequalities in the COVID period have impacted access to learning and the labour market on key groups, one of these key groups being women. The report will also set out a roadmap for addressing this. 

If tackled robustly, women can thrive and progress and businesses can fully-utilise a talent pool filled to overflowing with educated, experienced women, to their own benefit and that of the UK economy. To make a real difference to those most impacted by the pandemic, the time to act is now.