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COVID-19 has driven a change in the way many people work that will have a lasting effect on the ability of women to pursue ambitious career paths. Beyond that, it has had a wider impact on the diversity and inclusion agenda within many businesses. Will the fallout of the pandemic progress or hinder gender parity in senior management?
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The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the business landscape has been profound, and in many instances has had greater consequences for women. An enforced shift to remote working has made some office-based jobs more flexible, removing commutes and allowing staff to set their own hours. While some of these factors have had a positive effect on the working lives of women, others have undoubtedly been a hindrance to both everyday tasks and their options for career progression.

Many employees now experience the challenges of having to juggle work and home responsibilities, set up shop in less than ideal environments, and being cut off from day-to-day interaction with colleagues.

Challenges in the workplace

In the wider job market, women have been more greatly affected by redundancies and furloughing. The Pew Research Center reports that in the US between February and May 2020, 11.5 million women lost their jobs compared with 9 million men. Meanwhile, in the UK, an Institute for Fiscal Studies survey shows that mothers were 23% more likely than fathers to become unemployed during the pandemic.

In addition to these issues, women have shouldered more of the caring responsibilities during lockdown. Combined research by the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich found that in the UK, the US and Germany, women across all income brackets did more childcare and home schooling than men during lockdowns. In light of this, it is unsurprising that 45% of respondents to Grant Thornton’s Women in Business research expect that, overall, COVID-19 will have a negative effect on women’s career trajectories in the immediate term.

Has the D&I focus blurred?

To combat these market shifts, a greater focus on retaining women in the workplace is needed. But after the increased drive towards diversity and inclusion (D&I) from businesses in recent years, for some COVID-19 has put on the brakes. McKinsey & Company’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report suggests the professional advancement of women may have been set back five years, with more than 2 million considering quitting the workforce in the US alone, leaving fewer women in senior leadership, and fewer in the pipeline to become future leaders.

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With this diversity drought looming, D&I must be reprioritised. “Sometimes in a crisis, people drop the things that are difficult – their marketing spend and learning commitments, and their D&I policies – in favour of operational efficiency,” says Francesca Lagerberg, global leader – network capabilities for Grant Thornton International. “But if you remove your ability to set your workforce up for the future, that has an implication, and that can set you back when the market does pick up. Businesses that have taken their foot off the pedal will regret it in future years.”

Businesses are recognising the dangers of losing focus, and also the need for diverse leadership to help them survive the crisis. “There was a short-term danger – but now that inclusivity is back on the agenda, I don’t believe women’s careers have to be set back that far,” says Caroline Whaley, co-founder of Shine For Women. “D&I work that was put on hold is now coming back with a vengeance.”

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In Grant Thornton’s Women in Business research, 69% of respondents agreed, or strongly agreed, that new working practices driven by COVID-19 would benefit women’s long-term career trajectories. For further insights into the impact of the pandemic on women in senior management, download the full report here.