Many have regurgitated a common myth: the Covid crisis has led to more flexible working, which helps working women attain better equality. The true picture, however, is more nuanced and complicated. Rather than being a great liberator, Covid has, in some ways, exacerbated the problems for mid-career women.
A report published today by the Female Lead, the education charity I founded six years ago, and Cambridge University psychologist Dr Terri Apter, interviewed 60 working women aged between 25 and 44. It throws up a series of sticking points curtailing female progress.
One of the recurring themes was what we have branded the unentitled mindset. This is a psychological theory acknowledging the way women have been socially conditioned to feel less entitled than men, in all areas of their lives.
Covid has aggravated the unentitled mindset. The burden of domestic chores is falling disproportionately to women. When things get difficult at home with conflicting pressures, it is almost invariably women being forced to find a compromise and retreat.
This translates to how women work, especially in critical areas such as at the pay negotiation table. It’s not because of any doubt of their skills, the picture often painted, but because of the lack of transparency and clarity in the process.
One of the most crucial keys to address the unentitled mindset is reinstate gender pay gap reporting.
This was suspended a year ago to ease the pressure on companies grappling with the pandemic. But, a year on from the start of the crisis, we can’t keep dragging our heels. Equipping women with the tools to fight for what they are worth cannot fall by the wayside. We must be able, as they say, to walk and chew gum.
There is also an important role for businesses to play. Organisations can proactively explain to their staff how, when and with whom pay discussions should be held. There is a tendency to rest on exceptionalism, the idea that because some women are able to hold their corner when it comes to pay, all women are able to. Enabling greater transparency around the process will help those who are more likely to fall into the trap of the unentitled mindset and not assert themselves.
Businesses also need to design high-value and leadership roles which offers true flexibility. The most female friendly companies are those where everyone, however senior, can work flexibly.
Helping women work better is not just about what’s fair, it is also about what makes good business sense. Research shows that companies which excel at gender diversity are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability. Bridging the gender gap would bring a windfall of £150 billion to the economy overall.
We’re in the midst of an incredibly fragile economic climate and we must do all we can to ensure that lifting women up into more senior and well-paid roles is front and centre of our agenda.
Covid-19 has been a game-changer. People’s working lives have changed, particularly women’s. We need to be careful that we do not allow the unentitled mindset to grow, and that we support working women to develop and prosper. This is not a problem that will be solved by “fixing women” but requires a wholesale transformation of business culture.