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Gender, the pandemic and capitalism: ‘Not messing about’ on a better way forward – Dr Duncan Brown, Womanthology Associate

Pandemic women

Dr Duncan Brown is an author, researcher and government adviser with 30 years’ experience working in major HR consultancies and employment institutes. He also spent five years as the deputy CEO at the CIPD. His clients have included Shell, the Cabinet Office, the Department of Health, Unicef UK and the Fairtrade Foundation.

Duncan Brown
Dr Duncan Brown

“Women are much more likely than men to be in precarious jobs and in low-paying sectors such as entertainment and hospitality hardest hit by the lockdown and now recession. Unlike the last recession, this now seems likely to be a downturn heralding a major rise in unemployment, with a record number laid off in recent months, and female workers disproportionately affected.”

Working women, especially mothers, appear to have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, forcing an even worse work-life imbalance on some homeworkers and pushing others out of the labour market altogether, never mind the higher risks of catching COVID at work experienced by keyworkers. We face an impending ‘she-cession’. But is this really the result of COVID-19, or is capitalism itself and its male-dominated economics to blame?

Looking at the gendered nature of the problems, there are some surprisingly straightforward solutions, so long as enough political and corporate leaders really do want to #buildbackbetter, rather than just return to business-as-usual.

Adrian Tomine’s recent wonderfully Hopper-esque cover picture for the New Yorker magazine brilliantly captures the double-edged, contradictory impact of the pandemic on working women.

A picture of work freedom, or domestic enslavement?

A young woman sits at the centre of his picture at the dining table in her cramped New York bedsit, phone in one hand and cocktail in the other, her laptop precariously perched on a pile of books in front of her, smartly attired in blouse and earrings above the waist and shorts and flip flops below, surrounded by the accumulated mess of weeks spent in lockdown – used takeaway coffee cups and face masks here under her chair, empty wine glasses and hand gel there on the table; cats, dumbbells and empty delivery packages strewn across the floor. Any notion of that terrible phrase ‘work-life-balance’ abandoned long since.

“It’s me dad!” exclaimed my returned, co-habiting younger daughter seeing the picture, company computer on lap, sitting cross-legged on her bed, not yet anywhere near being able to afford the rent even on that bedsit apartment of the New Yorker’s cover-lady, despite her nicely-progressing career with a major newspaper.

On the positive side, particularly early in lockdown, many commentators saw the shock of the virus’ remarkable impact on our working lives as an opportunity to enhance women’s career and earning prospects, given that having children at home has been shown in many prior research studies to have a hugely negative impact on female work futures (although not, interestingly, on fathers).

This so-called ‘motherhood penalty’ was originally measured as an earnings gap of 4% after the first child and 12% the second (Waite, 2001). But now, even in egalitarian Denmark it creates a 20% earnings gap between mothers and equivalently qualified single women. Home and flexible working for many professional and white collar occupations of course ballooned in lockdown, with the numbers working at home rising from 5.7% of workers in January 2020 to 43.1% in April according to our Office for National statistics (ONS).

Greater openness of employers to working in this way seems likely to be a permanent shift in practice resulting, with Standard Chartered, Lloyds, Zurich Insurance and a number of other large financial institutions now declaring that employees can essentially work where they like. Caroline Whaley of Shine is among those feeling cautiously optimistic about opportunities for businesses to harness the lessons from COVID-19 to improve working environments in ways that can boost gender equality. “One very obvious solution is flexibility, a notion that was not backed by many businesses pre-pandemic, which has now become key,” she says. “If done right, flexible working will be a game-changer for women’s careers.”

The gendered, unequal impact on work, jobs, health: The she-cession

Yet preparing for, giving and listening to the evidence presented to the House of Commons Women and Equality Committee’s inquiry into the gendered and unequal impact of the pandemic, it was hard to be that optimistic. Most of the information indicated that the forced bringing together and growing demands of both work and home life on working women during the pandemic have taken a heavy toll in practice.

The newspaper headlines you will have seen, of ‘The Coronavirus Crisis taking women back to the 1950’s (The FT) and ‘Women are sacrificial lambs in Covid childcare crisis’ (The Guardian), seem to be accurate rather than exaggerated. Workaholic, male-dominated cultures that reinforced gender glass ceilings in the office have in many cases simply been transferred home, with longer working hours evident despite the lost commuting time, and increased domestic and caring demands, (most notably home-schooling), overwhelmingly serviced by women.

In fact, this double-crunch on their time has seen according to last month’s employment figures from the Office for National Statistics, more than 400,000 women , many working part-time, drop out of the UK labour market entirely in the first six months of the year. Most have fallen into the ONS’s category of ‘economically inactive’, rather than ‘unemployed’ claiming benefits and looking for new work. 800,000 women did the same in Tomine’s USA in September alone.

Looking across 38 countries, UN Women found that before the crisis women did three hours of unpaid domestic and caring work for every hour by men, and that time and that difference have increased significantly over the past six months, prompting their fears of ‘reverting to 1950’s gender stereotypes’. More widely, they found a general lack of action by governments to recognise and address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on females.

IES analysis of the over nine million workers who have been on the government’s furlough scheme, and planned redundancies by employers in the months ahead, concludes that: ‘low-income workers are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic’. These workers are ‘more likely to be women, to be lone parents, to be from certain ethnic minority groups, and to have no qualifications’.

Women are much more likely than men to be in precarious jobs and in low-paying sectors such as entertainment and hospitality hardest hit by the lockdown and now recession. Unlike the last recession, this now seems likely to be a downturn heralding a major rise in unemployment, with a record number laid off in recent months, and female workers disproportionately affected. That this population of low-paid, low-power female workers is already apparently being prioritised in redundancy exercises, is possibly even more concerning from an equality perspective.

Women also predominate in the keyworker roles which are mostly not amenable to homeworking, and where we have seen the highest occupational mortality rates from COVID, notably for care home workers and retail shop assistants.

Colleagues at IES working on our research project funded by the Standard Life Foundation on the impact of the pandemic on low-paid workers, which I shared with the House of Commons Committee, provides some moving insights into the real-life experiences and hardships of working women evident behind the national statistics. To quote from the findings:

‘Some of those who worked on-demand via agencies, such as (90% female) domiciliary care workers, saw a significant reduction in the hours they were being offered during lockdown. Others, usually working part-time and on zero-hours contracts, were made redundant from their job. Several asked their employer why they had made this decision and why they were not being furloughed. The reasons given included their employer (incorrectly) questioning their eligibility for the Job Retention Scheme and being unable to calculate their furlough entitlement due to losing their records’.

American professor of economics Tara Sinclair describes this as a ‘she-cession’, or more accurately a ‘mom-cession’, with her international analysis showing the biggest decline in mostly service sector jobs with high female representation, falling by over 50% more than employment rates for men and single women.

Crisis or capitalism to blame?

‘Contemporary capitalism is incompatible with feminism’.

Celebrity ‘electrifying economist’ and London-based professor Mariana Mazzucato doesn’t believe that such gendered problems are solely down to the pandemic. Rather, the virus and its economic impact have shone a searching light on an already-failing economic system. She believes that modern private companies, often benefitting from substantial state and public investment, focus on narrow considerations of shareholder returns, while equally male-dominated governments and economists consider narrow definitions of GDP and growth, rather than the total wellbeing of the whole of society. Price and cost trump value.

Take executive pay. Fewer than half of the executives in our major companies took a pay cut this year in response to the pandemic, despite the millions of the UK’s low-paid employees being placed on a lower pay rate and on the public purse on the government’s furlough scheme. The majority of these pay cuts have already been restored. The authors of a recent report from The Pipeline note that ‘there remains a woeful lack of women CEOS’ in this elite executive population, an ‘abysmal situation’ when amidst the largest 100 UK companies, if you have a son called Peter then he is more likely to be a FTSE 100 chief executive ( six of them) than your daughter (only five female CEOs).

Actually, that was in June. Amanda Blanc’s appointment as CEO at Aviva in July made the odds even with Philips. Yet even under our current version of capitalism, the Pipeline report shows that FTSE 350 companies with no women on their board are ten times less profitable than those whose boards have already achieved the original 30% Club voluntary target set a decade ago.

As well as the benefits of greater diversity, Mazzucato describes how the pandemic has highlighted the importance of major state intervention to keep many of these private sector companies afloat. She also believes it has demonstrated that ‘our most valuable, irreplaceable citizens’ are not male-dominated executives, bankers or economists, but these lower-paid and less-protected workers, ‘those who work in health and social care, public transport, supermarkets: – jobs disproportionately occupied by women’. ‘Suffering’ she writes, ‘is not inevitable for those groups, it is a policy choice’.

We heard from Chancellor Rishi Sunak at the end of November that one policy choice of this current UK government as to the rewards for the commitment of these workers in the public sector during the pandemic will be a pay freeze this year. The report from the International Labour Organisation highlighted that in fact, the COVID crisis has ‘led to a worsening of wage inequality around the world’ only partly offset by state support schemes. The share of the lowest-paid workers of the total wage bill has fallen globally this year from an average of 27% to 23%. Sunak’s policy seems unlikely to help.

Sparring on Linked In recently with an old colleagues who specialises in executive reward, Mark told me the problem with many of those like me opposing the pay freeze was that their arguments were ‘too emotional’ and lacked economic logic.

Yet in the final section of his new book launched in November, Pope Francis, (a client of Mazzucato’s, who cites her work), states that the more balanced and emotional perspective women bring to political and economic decision-making is what the world needs now, urging leaders to reprioritise ‘value’ over ‘price’, that ‘taking wealth is not the same as making’ wealth, and writing the world has lost sight of what value really means. He highlights the success of female leaders around the world have had in tackling COVID-19 in recognising this.

Practical progress post-pandemic – establishing and breaking down barriers

Explaining her strict and well-respected lockdown policy ten months ago, New Zealand premier and mother Jacinda Ardern described a special exemption for ‘both the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny to be essential workers’. Ardern has the highest confidence-through-the-crisis ratings of any world leader and New Zealand has had an astonishing low COVID cumulative death rate of 5.1 per million citizens under her empathetic but firm leadership. Analysis by the Financial Times of female political leaders more widely finds that their countries’ lockdown conditions were no stricter than those of their male counterparts. But as the Pope says, those led by females have displayed both significantly lower death rates and better economic performance.

In female-led Iceland, Norway and Finland, the deaths per million have kept well below 100, in Denmark and Germany, they have stayed under 250. ‘That is much better than in male-led countries’ according to their analysis – in Italy, the UK and US it was above 780. As Gus O’Donnell, the (male) former head of the British civil service, recently pointed out in a speech to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, pandemics cannot be beaten by medical science alone; instead, ‘containing the pandemic is achieved mostly by changing behaviour’, encouraged by leaders who are strong on empathy and humility, rather than hubris.

Chairs and CEOs of our largest companies often now explain away their continuing appallingly-white-male boards and their failure to bring these leadership styles into their companies on the basis that, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s research: ‘there simply are not enough qualified women in the pipeline – women are assumed to lack the necessary skills to sit on Boards, or not to aspire to Board directorships’.

Yet the evidence from my own and other research is, as the Commission also points out, the opposite and that:

‘a plethora of research actually suggests that persistent gender stereotypes create biased judgments about the competence of potential or actual female Board directors, or about the suitability for top corporate roles… women directors (in reality) were found to possess more human capital compared to their peers – specifically, they were more likely to hold MBA degrees, to have multiple sector experience and to have international experience’

Moreover, they estimated that 2,551 women were already in (and largely being ignored in) these FTSE companies talent pipelines, even if there needs to be investment in more. The barriers are largely in the heads and policies of existing leaders, who lack the heart that the Pope and Mazzucato describe as being needed in economic and business policies.

My own experience is that relatively small investments in practice and support can have a major impact on that female talent pipeline, pandemic or not. Take Zurich Insurance for example.

Already promoting since 2019 a ‘Flexwork (policy) empowering employees to work where, when and how they choose’ and working with the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, Zurich has seen remarkable success from simply adding six words to its recruitment ads for all positions. They are all now available on a ‘part time, job share or flexible working’ basis. Coupled with the use of gender-neutral language, their one-year trial has seen the number of female and male job applicants double, applications for management and higher-paying roles from women have increased by 20%, and the number of women hired and promoted into senior roles is up by 33%.

According to Steve Collinson, Zurich’s head of HR, with such initiatives ‘employers could open the flood-gates to a wider pool of untapped talent’. And according to their promoted people technology consultant Helen Chomeley, ‘flexibility removes the ‘mum-guilt’ feeling – I can be a mum and a (well-paid) technology consultant’.

At the other end of the income spectrum, when my IES colleagues asked the low-paid female keyworkers in their research what additional support they would value, their recommendations ‘included; greater assistance with job searches, retraining and childcare for those currently unemployed; better awareness of workers’ rights and legal protection in context of COVID-19; and a range of financial support measures – from access to free financial advice services to further raising Universal Credit’. Which is pretty much what us supposed-experts recommended to the House of Commons Women and Equality Committee at our evidence session.

Picturing and acting to build a better post-COVID world

In Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, Pope Francis writes of the importance of changing dominant mindsets for ‘new visions and models: We are not condemned to economic models whose immediate interests are limited to profit and are unconcerned with human, social and environmental costs. Development cannot be restricted to simply economic growth – to be authentic it must be well round and integral.’

The book explains how the pandemic has taught us that we must make the world safer, fairer, and healthier for all people now: ‘I see thinking that is not ideological, which moves beyond the polarization of free-market capitalism and state socialism, and which has at its heart a concern that all of humanity have access to land, lodging, and labour.’

Mariana Mazzucato imagines a very similar world to be possible as soon as 2023 with the required shift in leadership and policy decisions. It will be a world where ‘we have not only beaten COVID but used the recovery as an inflection-point towards a new world which is greener, more inclusive and more sustainable based on innovation-led growth’. In the immediate-term, state support to companies must be ‘conditional on maintain jobs, securing minimum wages, halting share buybacks and ensuring worker representation on boards’.

But it’s not just governments and companies that need to change their priorities to build this kinder, more equal world: we all do.

Artist Tracey Emin, well-known for her confessional and controversial artwork, and now one of the first two female professors to be appointed at the Royal Academy since it was founded in 1768, can afford more than a bedsit. But she has had a pretty awful lockdown by any standards, diagnosed with cancer and her life saved by major surgery over the summer, when it seemed highly unlikely that she would live until Christmas.

In a remarkable interview in November she talked about now feeling reborn – ‘I feel like I’ve been forgiven, I feel like this is the real true beginning’.

As a country, she believes many of us will have had brushes with our own and our loved ones’ mortality in the pandemic, and that should help us ‘to realise what’s important and what needs to change in a more caring and empathetic, kinder society’: ‘We’re on the cusp of something, and there’s no more messing around’.

So let’s all join with Womathology and get on with it…