Women have been hardest hit by the socioeconomic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, forced out of the workforce at four times the rate of men.
Over two thirds of the additional responsibilities generated by Covid, such as homeschooling, have been absorbed by women, according to a report by the London School of Economics, and there are growing concerns that women are being targeted for furlough or redundancy for this reason.
In other cases, women are leaving the workforce voluntarily – on paper, at least – but in reality, many have no other choice.
“I think it’s very clear that Covid has entrenched already enormous inequalities,” says Sophie Walker, founding leader of the Women’s Equality Party, who’s recently joined law firm McAllister Olivarius as chief strategy officer.
“It has been really painful to watch the progression of the pandemic, not just because there has been such immediate pain and illness and loss of life, but because there has been so little understanding of how to respond to an event that has exposed our social infrastructure as being severely lacking.”
Walker says governments have consistently overlooked the unpaid work disproportionately completed by women – such as childcare and care of elderly relatives – and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Though schools are returning this week, this won’t end the problem if students are sent home and told to self-isolate in the rates we saw in autumn.
“It’s astonishing to me that a government response to a pandemic can be to go out in a hard hat and start talking about construction, when the NHS is on its knees, schools are closing, nurseries are closing and women in their thousands are being pushed into poverty and financial despair,” she says.
We can’t change societal views about the roles of women overnight. But we can fight back against those societal views, if we think they’re contributing to discrimination in the workplace. Here are five things to look out for:
Women’s wages have been cut
Almost three quarters (72%) of mothers have had to work fewer hours because of childcare issues, according to a survey by Pregnant then Screwed.
This will have had a direct impact of women’s wages, says Walker, as women are “more likely to be on precarious work contracts and zero hours contracts”, where they get paid for the hours they complete.
All employees have the right to request flexible working, says gender discrimination lawyer Kelsey Murrell, so remember this if you’re unable to fit your usual tasks into set hours.
“Your employer isn’t obliged to grant that request, but they are legally obliged to deal with your request reasonably,” she says.
“There might be circumstances where it doesn’t make sense – a job in manufacturing, for example, where you really do need to be working certain hours – but if there isn’t a good reason why there can’t be that flexibility, it could well be unreasonable for them to deny it.”
Nor should the mental health impact of shifting your day and combining it with unpaid work should be underestimated.
“I’m hearing from women who are working 16 to 18 hour days to do all the childcare first, then try to do all of the work at the end of the day and into the middle of the night,” says Walker. “That just can’t compare to men, husbands and partners, who are going into another room, shutting the door and working as normal.”
Women are being targeted for redundancy
Among working mothers, 15% have been made redundant or believe they will be made redundant in the next six months. Almost half (46%) of those who’ve faced redundancy believe a lack of childcare may have contributed to them being selected.
“One thing we’ve seen in both the US and the UK is employers using redundancies and Covid as their cover to clean house,” says Murrell.
“There’s no question that a lot of businesses absolutely do have to make some employees redundant – but the furlough scheme is still going, so there is a query around whether they really have to right now.”
Look for patterns, she suggests. Who is being made redundant? Is it mostly women? Is it mostly women who are also mothers? Is one protected class being targeted more than others?
“It’s not really enough for a discrimination claim that you are a woman and someone else isn’t and you were selected for redundancy and they weren’t,” adds Murrell. “You do need some other evidence.”
Keeping a log of potential discrimination, ranging from offensive comments to being overlooked for opportunities, will strengthen your case.
“It can be a combination of a lot of little things,” says Murrell. “And I don’t want to call them little, because they’re obviously enormously hurtful and cumulative.”
As uncomfortable as it may feel, your first step if you suspect discrimination is to file an internal grievance. This is the case for any claim that may potentially end up at an employment tribunal.
“You can be penalised and your damages can be reduced [if you don’t raise internally], because the idea is that the courts want to keep as many claims out of court that don’t need to be in court as possible,” explains Murrell.
After filing an internal grievance, you’ll need to file a claim with Acas, the administrative body that deals with work-based claims, within three months. Ascas will then process this, before your claim is brought to an employment tribunal. The system is designed to be used without a lawyer, says Murrell, but seeking legal advice might help you feel more at ease.
Women are being targeted for furlough
There are two big problems with the furlough scheme: being unfairly targeted for furlough by employers, and asking to be furloughed but being denied it.
Over half (65%) of mothers who have been furloughed say a lack of childcare was the reason, yet separate research shows 70% of working mothers who asked to be furloughed for childcare reasons have been refused. Both show a lack of understanding of the complexities of being a working parent.
“Unfortunately there’s not a lot that you can do if you’ve been denied furlough, because you have a right to request furlough, but you don’t have an absolute right to demand it,” says Murrell. “But on the flip-side we’ve seen companies make assumptions about women and what their performance is going to be like before even asking them. That is a discriminatory issue.”
Again, she advises looking for patterns among the furloughed staff: are they disproportionately women, mothers or both? Also note down any seemingly off-the-cuff comments that might suggest women were targeted.
“A lot of women experience gaslighting in the workplace, but they also downplay their own experiences, they don’t want to be seen as hysterical or overreacting to things,” says Murrell. “Because we’re often tone-policed in the workplace, I think we’re hyper-vigilant about not overreacting.”
Shake off that internalised patriarchy, don’t worry about being a “drama queen” and raise a grievance (as instructed above) if something doesn’t feel right.
Another thing to remember, is that employers shouldn’t take you off regular maternity leave pay to furlough you.
“Whilst someone can be furloughed on maternity leave, this does not fundamentally alter their maternity rights. You should not have maternity leave replaced or cut short for furlough.” says Murrell. “It would be an abuse of not only that woman’s rights, but the government furlough scheme.”
Women are missing out on meetings
We might joke that we’re all in too many meetings, but if women are taking on disproportionate childcare and home responsibilities, they risk losing their voice at the table.
Companies should make reasonable adjustments to working conditions, such as the times of meetings, if there’s a particular time of day that’s harder for the parents or carers.
“One of the implied duties that every employer owes an employee is a mutual duty of trust and confidence,” says Murrell. “If we’re talking about things like asking for flexibility around when meetings take place... if an employer is reacting unreasonably, it may be that they’ve breached that duty and it could be that you’ve got a legal claim there.”
Problems such being excluded from meetings might be a form of “indirect discrimination”.
“If a company has a policy that on the face of it is not discriminatory and it applies to everybody, but it disproportionately affects a protected class, then you may have an indirect discrimination claim,” she adds. “You can raise that with your employer, because an employer may not even be recognising it.”
Women are still being harassed
Women are still experiencing workplace sexual harassment during the pandemic. A survey from Rights Of Women found 42% of women experiencing sexual harassment at work have experienced some to all of the harassment online. Almost a quarter (23%) of women who have experienced sexual harassment reported an increase or escalation whilst working from home.
The pandemic has caused the nature of sexual harassment to change, says Murrell, and some workers may be less inclined to report it.
“One thing I see a lot is harassers trying to send harassing messages over personal numbers or emails instead of work channels, thinking that will protect them, but it doesn’t,” she says.
“The thing that makes me worry, is that in the current economic climate women don’t feel as empowered to assert those rights, they don’t want to rock the boat, because they want to hold onto that job.”
Murrell urges women to continue to report harassment and to do so immediately, rather than wait until the “pandemic is over”. Again, there’s a three-month time limit – so waiting may mean perpetrators go unchallenged.