Tuesday 15 September 2020 10:14 amWIBF Talk

Covid-19 note on gender: How do we prepare for A new normal which includes women equally?

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Helena Thernstrom works as Head of Legal for RBS’s Asset and Invoice Finance businesses where she also heads up the Bank’s gender network in London. She is a passionate and visible advocate of diversity and inclusion, including social mobility and pro-bono initiatives, and was shortlisted for the 2019 WIBF ‘Champion for Women’ award. She is also shortlisted for the same award this year.

In planning for the new normal, how do we ensure that we are able to appropriately support our customers, communities, colleagues, friends, and families? In formulating our responses and policies, are we taking informed decisions based on relevant and appropriately aggregated data? And does the decision-making process include a diverse set of voices and experiences?

It is clear that covid-19 has not been a great leveller and that it has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities across all socio-economic aspects of life. The vulnerable have become more vulnerable and many organisations set up to help are currently on their knees.

There is of course a myriad of vulnerable groups that we need to understand, advocate, and take account of in planning for the new normal but this note looks at gender-related aspects of covid-19.

Women and Covid-19

We know from prior experiences that pandemics have far reaching gendered implications which exploit and entrench pre-existing norms and inequalities. These range from violence against women to stunting women’s engagement in the workplace. Across the globe, organisations and commentators alike call out a concern that covid-19 has the potential to unravel the modest progress made in the past decades.

The United Nations’ (UN) analysis of the covid-19 pandemic has identified five critical areas that leave women and girls most vulnerable. These are:

1. Increased risks for gender-based violence in the context of pandemic response policies

2. Unemployment, economic and livelihood impacts for the poorest women and girls

3. Unequal distribution of care and domestic work

4. Women and girls’ voices are not being included in an informed and effective response

5. Policy response mechanisms do not incorporate gender analytical data or gender-responsive plans

The UN calls out a need for all to be addressed within comprehensive response plans. They are a good starting point for organisations planning for the new normal, whether looking at support to customers or colleagues, and whether approaching the issue from a commercial or a moral viewpoint. Some UK statistics worth bearing in mind are also set out at the bottom of this note.

Increased risks for Gender-Based Violence in the context of pandemic response policies

The UN labels violence against women and girls a growing ‘shadow pandemic’ with some countries reporting a recent increase of over 25 per cent. Situations of crisis will always be accompanied by an increase in violence against women and girls and lockdown has created an unprecedented surge in offences. Additionally, closures or limitations of public services such as law enforcement have made the situation even worse. We know that under ‘normal’ circumstances, less than 40 per cent of victims of domestic abuse seek help and that less than 10 per cent go to the police. Lockdown has essentially ‘locked’ many women into the abusive situation they find themselves in and opportunities are limited to call helplines or make contact with organisations that can support. The UN estimates the global cost of violence against women and girls to be ca $1.5 trillion and warns that this figure is set to increase drastically in the wake of covid-19.

In the UK alone, nearly one in three women will experience domestic abuse at some point during their lives. So where does this leave organisations? Inevitably, organisations will have workers who are experiencing abuse and/or violence in the home. They will also have customers who are experiencing the same. Whether looking at customer journeys or internal policies, organisations may want to question if these are set up with an understanding of the impacts on victims. For instance, is there actually going to be space for people to be able to choose whether to work from home or in the office in the new normal (noting that home working arrangements may not benefit victims of domestic abuse)? Are organisations set up with a workforce that understands how to spot signs of domestic abuse or at least how to support those who have come forward with dignity and confidentiality (noting that mere access to abstract and outdated intranet policies may not always be helpful)? Do organisations operating personal accounts have processes in place whereby victims of abuse are able to take action with regards to joint accounts?

Unemployment, economic and livelihood impacts for the poorest women and girls

Put simply: women are poorer than men. António Guterres (UN Secretary General) recently commented that “the deep economic downturn accompanying the pandemic is likely to have a distinctly female face.” Women disproportionately work in insecure, lower-paid, part-time and informal employment, with little or no security or protection. The 2019 UK Gender Pay Gap was 17.3 per cent meaning that on average, women were paid ca 83p for every £1 men were paid. The 2020 Gender Pay Gap reporting requirements have been cancelled. Research from the Women’s Budget Group has found huge gender disparities between mortgage and rent affordability, citing the pay gap as the underlying cause. Whilst mortgage repayment holidays have been mandated by the FCA, no measures have yet been put in place for renters. Renters comprise a vulnerable group with 63 per cent reporting not having any savings at all. Of these, women are especially at risk since average rents take 43 per cent of women’s median earnings but just 28 per cent of men’s.

The ability of customers to meet their payment obligations has undeniably been a primary focal point across the industry. Significant regulatory and Government interventions have resulted in organisations having to move at pace to support its customers and staff, often through material changes to operational processes, credit policies and technology solutions. As the industry is preparing itself for the payment holidays to come to an end, and in formulating relevant policies and processes, organisations may wish to ask themselves if they are incorporating due consideration to gender-specific circumstances and needs? Do they have gender-disaggregated data to base their responses on? Are there any wider reputational, purpose or social responsibility -led considerations to take account of? For instance, whilst a number of organisations have created specific carve-outs for customers who are actively supporting the national covid-19 response, will there be any carve-outs for groups of vulnerable female customers?

Unequal distribution of care and domestic work

Generally speaking, women are the carers of our society. This applies whether looking at professions (77 per cent of UK healthcare workers are women, as are 83 per cent of the social care workforce) or at family life (in the UK, women carry out 60 per cent more unpaid work than men). The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) estimates that prior to covid-19, women across the EU spent 13 hours more than men every week on unpaid care and housework. Moreover, according to EIGE data, 85 per cent of single parents are women in the EU and 48 per cent of these are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, compared to 32 per cent of single fathers. Importantly, aside from reported data, there is of course also the so called ‘mental load’ which is overwhelmingly borne by women. Mental load is well illustrated in a cartoon by Emma and highlights the fact that ‘running’ a household, being the person expected to remember, plan and direct, is equivalent to acting as a project manager -in of itself energy sapping, stressful and a job. The closure of schools and workplaces, and the heightened need for care of the elderly, has exponentially increased the hours spent on unpaid work and mental load of women. A recent survey from Lean-In reports that women are currently experiencing physical symptoms of stress and burnout at twice the rate of men.

Whilst home schooling arrangements are in the process of changing, it is clear that changes will take different forms and happen at different times. Similarly, workers returning to the offices will be a slow process and involve varied experiences depending on personal circumstances. Those who are vulnerable now are likely to remain so and in the care of current carers. Whilst remote working arrangements have provided much welcome flexibility and family time for some, there is no doubt that it has put additional strains on those with care responsibilities and also that these responsibilities are likely to continue for some time. Organisations may wish to ask themselves if their return to the office processes are capable of providing flexibility depending on individual circumstances (and if they are completely gender neutral)? And are these processes undertaken with due acknowledgement and regard to the potential for maternal bias (i.e. an instinctive bias and misconception that women are less committed than men to career progression in place of family)? Are women given sufficient support to cope with stress and do they have the opportunity to take a ‘real’ break if needed? Is there an opportunity to encourage men, many of whom will have come from the experience of taking on more household work, to actively participate in initiatives around work-life balance?

Women and girls’ voices are not being included in an informed and effective response, particularly for those most left behind

The November 2019 Hampton-Alexander report noted that the number of women on FTSE 100 boards stood at 32.4 per cent. This figure was updated in February 2020 when their target of 33 per cent female representation was reached, simultaneous to the covid-19 situation starting to develop in the UK. There are currently 349 women on FTSE 100 boards out of a total 1046 directorships. Whilst this progress is of course welcomed, the pace of change has remained disappointing and leaders in our society are predominantly male. The effects of patriarchal norms have been seen in countless guises during recent times, whether in data bias, PPE equipment being (ironically) designed for a male template, or in rhetoric used by politicians or leaders where continuous references to ‘war’ and ‘fighters’ unhelpfully carry associations which imply that the response should be lead and delivered by men. But as per the observations above, women are at the centre of front line work and are the ones who will bear the brunt of the economic impact. Their participation in formulating a response is absolutely critical to effective solutions. Yet, based on research, the Fawcett Society reports that so far, women and girls in the UK have been largely invisible from the debate and excluded from decision-making.

Organisations may wish to ask themselves if women are included and consulted in decision making around their responses? Is their leadership (not just in executive positions but in specific covid-19 response work) gender balanced? Are employee-led networks’ views and expertise sought? Is there in fact an opportunity to proactively invite their participation and to create covid-19 response-specific roles (noting that this will be a process which will continue long past 2020)? Countless studies show the importance of visible female leaders and role models and having women at the centre of efforts is called out by the UN as critically important. Are organisations taking the opportunity to ensure that women are seen and heard?

Policy response mechanisms do not incorporate gender analytical data or gender-responsive plans

This note has already called out the importance of gender-aggregated data to create an informed and credible understanding of what effective response mechanisms should look like, and the importance of avoiding data bias in collecting and analysing such information. In collecting data, how do organisations formulate problem statements and survey questions? Who participates in this formulation and who participates in the survey? Is sufficient expertise applied at the analysis stage? Across the wider industry, there have been limited reports published on organisations’ gender-specific response plans. Perhaps this is understandable as initial work has been heavily focused on immediate emergency responses to developments and perhaps it is unlikely that organisations will publish internal findings in the near future. However, to ensure that organisations’ policies and interventions speak to everyone’s needs, and to avoid harmful gender norms perpetuating (or indeed regressing), it is important that responses are based on a clear understanding of the challenges faced by different groups of people, and what underpins them. As plans for the new normal are in the process of being formulated, now seems like a good time for organisations to equip themselves with relevant information and knowledge.

What next?

In defining the new normal, leaders have a difficult task ahead of them. This will include balancing individual needs and circumstances with resources, commercial drivers and the overarching ambitions of their organisation. Covid-19 is not just a health issue but a profound shock to our societies and economies and with women comprising half of the UK population, it is fundamental that they are part of the solution. Female participation and leadership must be at the centre of ongoing work to create sustainable outputs and it is imperative that this is not treated a as a ‘women’s issue’ or a ‘nice to have’.

Whilst this note has pointed to many inequalities and challenges, covid-19 provides an opportunity for organisations to make people, diversity, and inclusion, and compassion the starting point. It is an opportunity for men to step up as allies, advocates, and positive role models. It is also an opportunity for women to step up in leadership roles to drive response work and defy commonly expressed fears that women seeking promotions is likely to reduce in place of focusing on responsibilities outside of work.

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