Without any doubt the pandemic has been one of the most extraordinary events of our lifetime. It has impacted the lives of billions of people around the world, and women have been impacted disproportionately. Data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that women have felt more anxious, depressed and lonely than men during lockdown. Some have described the feeling that they regressed overnight to the 1950s with the expectation to cook, clean and home-school children whilst maintaining a full time and high-pressured career.
Forced by the paradigm shift of COVID, companies adapted their working practices within days. Zooming, virtual office parties, Teams calls, ‘waist-up’-fashion and flex hours are all now part of our everyday vocabulary. And there have been positives – in some firms it now feels familiar and acceptable to discuss mental health and wellbeing concerns openly with colleagues.
As the world slowly emerges from lockdown, organisations are re-evaluating the future of the working world. Some are encouraging a rapid return to an office environment and others (often tech firms) have abandoned the old model entirely. Many more are embracing a hybrid of home and office-based working. How can organisations take the experiences and learnings of the last year to create a more diverse and inclusive environment? Will the progress on gender balance that had been made pre-pandemic disappear?
The true impact on gender equality is yet to be realised
The move to a hybrid working model could have terrible consequences for women. At the beginning of the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020, women spent 55% more time than men on unpaid childcare. During September and early October 2020, women spent 64% more time on unpaid household work than men(Source: Office for National Statistics - A new normal? How people spent their time after the March 2020 coronavirus lockdown). The flexibility of working hours and the shift to working from home as standard was, at first, highly praised as an opportunity for greater equality, with everyone in the same boat. With time however, it became apparent that it was a trap for many women with family responsibilities. The pandemic forced them into a permanent remote-working situation that has just made the domestic burden more invisible. The damage is being done silently. The bulk of the domestic burden, even in the most enlightened of homes, is still falling on women.
The narrative that women’s careers can be supported by offering them more flexibility to balance family responsibilities can cause an illusory correlation. Paradoxically, although it has been offered, it is still sometimes assumed that female employees have lower career aspirations if they choose to work flexibly. It’s a catch-22. And flexible working on its own is not enough.
How to recover the missing middle?
The “missing middle” are the group of women who are 12 to 15 years into their career and for the first-time face barriers to progression. According to the Women in Banking and Finance Accelerating Change Together Research Report (November 2020), it is actually more often men who are unhappy with their work-life-balance - the issue that leads more women to leave their careers is a perceived lack of career development opportunities. Only 51% of women aged between 35 to 41 believe their work environment is fair, a drop from 75% of women below the age of 25. They leave their jobs frustrated by the lack of opportunities; they feel overlooked and neglected which causes disengagement and is a key driver of the “leaky” pipeline of women into senior positions.
Financial services institutions are acutely concerned about the ‘missing middle’. Employers who want to hold on to their top female talent need to nurture career growth by giving them access to stretch assignments and recognising their contributions. If pre-pandemic, the emphasis for retaining women was on flexible work arrangements, going forward the focus must be on fair opportunity allocation, career coaching and encouragement to seek leadership positions.
‘Old school’ leadership is over
Real change, however, needs a synchronised bottom-up and top-down approach. Employees are critical of firms that pay lip service to but don’t follow through on promises to sponsor and develop their careers in a meaningful way. The COVID crisis has shone a light on what good leadership style is and how it needs to adapt to the new normal.
In the past it may have been enough for ‘old school’ leaders to boost the bottom line to be rewarded with ever-better career opportunities and large bonuses. However, many of these individuals have struggled in the virtual office where a values-driven leadership style was more effective. Emotional intelligence and empathy are the skills and behaviours people are looking for in times of adversity. The leaders who excelled in 2020 and 2021 were the ones who could communicate with employees and clients and engage with them beyond work topics.
New leadership styles are needed, and this may play to women’s strengths. Woman naturally tend to lean towards competencies that benefit from greater emotional intelligence which will be an important selection criterion for promotion and recruitment. Future leaders will need to be collaborative, compassionate and yet decisive.
Raising the diversity bar
With careful management and strong leadership, the silver lining to this crisis could be a revolution of the workforce that accelerates the change to achieving greater gender parity. Firms that commit to a meaningful diversity strategy will adapt quickly and become the employers of choice.
To find out how KPMG has enhanced its gender diversity in FS Consulting and how we can help you, read our Case Study.