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The pandemic's long-term impact on inequality

The unprecedented stop-start to life caused by Covid-19 has had a huge impact on workforces, particularly among diverse communities according to research by McKinsey, and it might be many more years until we understand the full implications on society and workplaces.

The wake of International Women’s Day this week is an opportunity for employers and HR teams to consider how this volatility has affected and could continue to affect female talent.

In a number of businesses and sectors, including National Grid, there has been an increase in gender equality and representation, highlighted in the final Hampton-Alexander Review which shows that the number of women on FTSE 350 boards has risen from 682 to 1,026 in five years,– and as businesses emerge from the pandemic once again, they must ensure inclusion remains a top priority or else risk undoing this progress.


Are policies considerate of caregivers?

The pandemic has shone a light on those with caring responsibilities who have faced significant challenges with adjusting to working from home, school and nursery closures, living with restrictions, caring for vulnerable family members and managing a return to the office. According to Carers UK, women make up the majority of carers.

Employers can consider how they are supporting these individuals and whether working practices need to be updated to reflect these experiences.

Do your policies offer the best flexibility for those in caregiver roles? For example, do you give enough notice for travelling abroad for work or last minute changes to meeting logistics which would impact school drop off or pick up? Are your workplace expectations for men and women equitable?

As women progress they are often unable to relinquish home responsibilities and have to find ways to balance these alongside their day to day work. They can also face additional bias such as maternal bias where men who are fathers have access to more opportunities than women who are mothers.

By actively finding ways to support those in these circumstances, businesses can create a fair work environment that enables women to achieve their full potential.


Do your benefits and support packages reflect the impact Covid-19 has had on working practices?

Even pre-Covid, some workplace benefits may have already looked out of date. HR teams and leaders should take stock of the benefits on offer and look at whether these are still relevant in the current working environment.

For example, what policies are in place to support mental wellbeing that incorporate the impact of, for example, isolating, lockdown restrictions or long-Covid?

Are there measures in place to support parents if schools need to close again? Importantly, if you operate in different jurisdictions, what does your support for your colleagues look like and how does it compare in different locations?

Considering these questions when reviewing the support available can help create a benefits package that is inclusive of all employees, and which can subsequently help everyone have access to the same opportunities in the workplace regardless of their personal situations.


Does your hybrid working model benefit all employees?

A lot of businesses are still figuring out what hybrid working means in practice for their organisation. At the same time, workforces are looking at what it means for their personal lives and careers.

Research in the US found that two thirds of millennial women believe they will miss career opportunities by not being in the office and 40% said they feel more pressure to go back into the office if they know their male colleagues do.

With many businesses implementing different hybrid models, employers need to take steps to ensure career trajectories for women and other disadvantaged groups are not disproportionately impacted if they choose to work from home on a regular basis.

For example, do meetings have a virtual and in-person element? Can they be structured in a way where those working remotely have equal opportunity to engage and be part of the discussion or can networking events be arranged enough in advance to allow people time to make appropriate arrangements to attend?


Getting this right will require different actions for different businesses

Companies and employees have been navigating different working policies for the last 24 months and it is clear that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach.

As we emerge from the pandemic and adapt to more changes, employers need to reflect on the learnings so far, seek feedback from teams and look at how they take forward practices that will provide their employees with the most inclusive and equitable working culture.


Lisa Waterhouse is UK head of diversity, equity and inclusion at National Grid.