by Kelly Beaver, Chief Executive of Ipsos UK.
Data can be a powerful catalyst for change. The best work creates insight that’s difficult to ignore, showing us where we are and what action is required to achieve progress.
There are many different data sets mapping the upheaval to our working lives created by the pandemic, and one area that needs to be watched closely is the impact on gender equality.
In many sectors, women were more adversely affected by job losses caused by Covid and its associated lockdowns. A higher proportion of women work in travel, tourism and hospitality, for instance, parts of the economy all hit hard by the restrictions.
The fear is the pandemic has slowed the progress we were making. Over the past 40 years, the UK has seen an almost continual rise in the proportion of women in employment. The rate among women of ‘prime working age’ (aged 25-54) was up from 57% in 1975 to a record high of 78% in 2017 [Institute of Fiscal Studies].
The proportion of working age couples with children where both parents are in work also rose markedly.
Where has this taken us? If you look at the attitudinal data focused on how people feel about their job, we can interesting changes. More people were saying that they felt spent and used-up at the end of their day in 2019 than they were back in the 1970s.
No doubt that’s partly because women entering the workforce are still juggling multiple priorities. As many women know, you cannot ‘have it all’, but you may have to do it all.
This needs consideration as we move forward with hybrid working. On one level that’s about how childcare and domestic responsibilities are shared or not shared. On another, it’s about exploring whether women feel their visibility in the workplace is diminishing, limiting their prospects for advancement.
New research conducted by our team at Ipsos and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London found that one in five people (19%) in Britain say their childcare or other caring responsibilities have prevented them from applying for a job or promotion at work, or have caused them to leave or consider leaving a job – with women (26%) twice as likely as men (13%) to say this has been the case for them.
And one in six people (16%) say that balancing work and caring responsibilities is one of most important issues facing women in Britain, rising to one in five (20%) among women themselves.
Clearly, if women are being held back or swamped by other, conflicting responsibilities, that is a huge backward step and there will be fewer skills and talent for employers to call upon. Businesses will also miss out on harnessing the full potential of the human resources available to them.
Flexibility is key if we are to become truly equal in the workplace. That means men becoming truly equal at home, ensuring that caring responsibilities and all they entail are split evenly. That requires introducing policies such as equal paternity/maternity leave for men and women. Or building flexibility into the working week, so that people can decide how, where and when they work – becoming less reliant on the traditional nine to five.
Of course, this will be far easier in some sectors than others. Factories, retail and hospitality, for instance will have a more rigid schedules than other types of business. But that’s why employers need to be relentless about uncovering what elements of the working experience they can change for the better and empowering people to take advantage of those changes.
Ultimately, a responsible business needs to look beyond the bounds of their own operations, to force positive change across society as a whole. By implementing policies that support women in their careers, either directly or indirectly, we can build back to a better, smarter economy.
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