Can Coronavirus help to reduce the gender pay gap?

Can Coronavirus help to reduce the gender pay gap?

Published by: Geraldine Gallacher, MD at the Executive Coaching Consultancy

Can Coronavirus help to reduce the gender pay gap?

 

In a time where coronavirus appears to be building walls and barriers for many, I wonder whether in some areas of the business world, it might actually break some of them down. Whilst the news is filled with coronavirus related stories and it is a worry at the forefront of many people’s minds, other difficult and negative stories, particularly in the gender space, are going un-talked about. For starters, early signs are that the gender pay gap is going to be worse this year. In other words, the gap between average women’s pay and men’s is set to widen. The other story that caught my attention was that in a survey carried out by Fox Rodney (legal recruiters), the number of females to make partner across the industry has dropped. And this is despite the acres of print devoted to the benefits of gender diversity.

So how can Coronavirus help? If, as is looking increasingly likely, we all have to work from home for a bit, I envisage (can I say dream of?) some potentially interesting shifts in mindsets. Say the nurseries do close and we all have to work from home, with children in tow. How will this pan out? Most of the women we coach (banks, law firms, professional services) are part of a dual career couple. Having both parents at home will mean sharing the childcare evenly with their partner- or will it? We know that the bulk of the domestic and childcare duties still lie with women even when they earn as much as their partners. The stereotypical split of care-giving and bread-winning down gender lines hasn’t moved on as much as we’d like to think.  Despite the increased numbers of women participating in the workforce, men haven’t really found the same acceptance of taking on care-giving responsibilities. I think it’s been hard for men to push for this as they are likely to experience more negative reactions for expressing a need for work/life balance than women. But if companies dictate that all their employees need to work from home, it could be a game-changer.

I’m curious to see how couples cope with these shared responsibilities. Will women step into the breach and continue to take the lead on domestic duties?  Or, will this be a catalyst for couples to look afresh at how tasks are divided and realign responsibilities? If nothing else, surely there will be a greater understanding and exposure to what’s involved for the care-giver partner.

Continuing on the theme of the impact of working from home, this could be the opportunity to break down older people’s (digital immigrants) suspicion about one’s ability to work when you’re not actually at work. I’m often told by clients, law firms in particular, that it’s just not possible to work from home because the tech doesn’t allow for it. I suspect we’ll all be digital natives in no time. For many, the suspicion around working from home comes from them not using the tools and ‘flexing the muscle’ often enough. If you don’t practise a skill frequently you forget it. Having to use video conferencing tools, access shared databases and use online collaboration tools every day will embed these skills and become second nature, even for us digital immigrants. I’m sure this will go a long way to bridge the generation gap.

It might also help with a fairer distribution of work. It’s so easy to give out work to the people sitting just outside your office or those you can rely on to be still around at 7pm in the evening. These tend not to be mothers, who head home, only to log on again at about 7.30pm. But if we’re all at home, we’re having to think a bit harder about who to engage with to get something done. It might lead to the uncomfortable realisation of some of the biases that we hold. I remember working with a retail company where the board was split down the middle with half females (buying, marketing, HR) and the other half were males (Finance, Retail Ops and the CEO). Every Monday after the trading meeting the 3 men would go off to lunch. I’m afraid to say that’s where all the real commercial decisions were made, not in the trading meeting. This was a source of irritation for the women on the board, whose challenges were dismissed as oversensitivity – note however that this was pre- #MeToo days. If informal face to face meetings become less prevalent, then some unconscious biases will be eroded. Meetings down the pub won’t be happening and so networking will have to go online. I think many would welcome this – not just women. I coach many men in their early 40s who feel forced to socialise in the evenings when they would much rather get back home to see their families.

Maybe the Coronavirus will help us to re-calibrate. Does it make sense to travel in and out to work every day when we can be productive from home? Rather hopefully, maybe this will cause us to pause and take better care of ourselves during this enforced hibernation. Perhaps we will eat better and exercise more and spend more time with our families and we’ll notice the positive impact on our productivity and creativity.

If all of this does come to pass, I think we might see a shifting of the gender fault lines which currently demarcate our approach to work. Exposing more people to the benefits of working remotely will reduce the stigma that currently working mothers in particular experience when they elect to work flexibly. Because, I actually think the real culprit behind poor gender diversity is our extreme culture of overwork. If we can resolve that then more women will definitely last the course in organisations, not because they want to work less but because they want to work smartly. There is truth in the old adage “if you want something done, ask a busy woman.”

Geraldine Gallacher

Managing Director at the Executive Coaching Consultancy

Geraldine Gallacher- CEO & Founder of the Executive Coaching Consultancy

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