• Sharon Peake

Why gender diversity matters now more than ever

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

As the world enters a global recession following the coronavirus pandemic, it may be tempting for companies to put their gender diversity initiatives on the backburner. But diversity is critical now more than ever.

#genderequality #newnormal #betternormal #covid19

The coronavirus pandemic is revealing significant gender inequalities in its economic impact, and risks undoing hard-won progress, as women suffer a disproportionate burden in job loss and domestic responsibilities.

In the US, the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), found that although men have typically faced greater unemployment risks than women during recessions, the coronavirus recession is different. The CEPR found that while 52 per cent of men hold roles deemed as ‘critical’ during the crisis, or are in jobs where remote working is possible, only 39 per cent of women do [1]. In the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, reports that mothers are nearly 50 per cent more likely than fathers, to have suffered permanent job loss since February. This is partly due to an overrepresentation of women in some of the hardest hit sectors such as retail and hospitality, which are particularly incompatible with social distancing or remote working [2].

Even for women who have not suffered job loss, the closure of schools and nurseries has meant they are picking up an increased domestic and care burden, where UK pre-lockdown figures show women were already performing an average of 232 mins of unpaid care per day, to men’s 131 mins [3].

These factors, combined with nuances that might further displace women, require extra vigilance to avoid undermining gender equity. Areas of risk include:

  • Virtual meetings: An unfortunate consequence of our conversion to Zoom meetings is that the gendered downsides of face-to-face meetings – such as men dominating the discussion or talking over women– are exacerbated. With fewer physical cues, meeting hosts may not pick up on these behaviours in the same way they might face-to-face. In addition, the lack of face time means there are fewer opportunities for informal networking. With visibility and access to networks already a barrier for women, this presents an increased risk to their profile. Setting clear protocols and training employees on how to run virtual meetings, which ensure that everyone gets fair airtime, would help mitigate this. Also, designing mechanisms for all employees, but particularly women, to have scheduled time with senior leaders, becomes even more important.

  • Downsizing: With so many industries impacted by the global pandemic, downsizing and job losses are inevitable and have already begun. Organisations should be alert to whether women are being disproportionately selected for such losses. Reviewing company data will help: are more women being furloughed? What are the caring responsibilities of staff members, particularly women, during the crisis? Are there discrepancies in performance ratings? Gender variations in this data can have unintended consequences. In a recent data analysis for a global manufacturer, we identified women received fewer positive performance ratings than men, and were more likely to be involuntarily exited. This was certainly not a conscious practice and was a valuable revelation from the data which allowed for further investigation into the underpinning reasons. With performance ratings often a consideration in redundancy exercises, it’s important to understand, and guard against, the risk of any unconscious bias.

  • Glass cliffs: Businesses struggling with the economic impacts of the pandemic need to be cognizant of the risks of setting women up for failure. Research tells us that women are more likely than men to achieve leadership roles in firms that are struggling or in crisis, where the chance of failure is highest. In part this reflects women’s desire to take higher risks in order to establish their leadership credentials. Yet at the same time these ‘glass cliff’ roles often come with reduced power and authority to implement the strategy, resulting in shorter tenures and higher failure rates. Ensuring all leaders have the right support and decision-making authority during these challenging times is key to avoiding this trap.

Fortunately adversity also brings opportunity, and new ways of working have emerged during the crisis, some of which could help counterbalance the risks to progress:

  • Flexibility in how we work: Flexible working has stereotypically been seen as a women’s issue and has been found to be a career killer for women in some cases. But if organisations can encourage both men and women to work flexibly and remotely, as the pandemic has shown is possible, then the gender bias of this arrangement is removed. In an era-defining decision, Twitter announced in March that any employees who want to remain working from home post the lockdown can do so. This is a great example of leadership on this topic and I hope many other companies follow suit. Our ‘new normal’ must be different to our pre-coronavirus work legacy. And with 9-12 per cent of men in the US expected to switch to primary caregiver roles as a result of the pandemic [1], we could see an increase in the breaking down of gender stereotypes that undermine true equality.

  • The importance of empathy in leadership: We have seen high caliber examples of empathetic leadership in the political sphere during the crisis: New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern epitomised empathy, courage and conviction with early lockdown of the country and her national Facebook live broadcasts explaining the decision; equally Erna Solberg of Norway, who addressed children directly in a press conference, reassuring them and telling them it was normal to feel afraid. Whilst empathy and compassion are not the preserve of women we know from research that they are traits typically associated with women. Organisations have an opportunity to set new standards in leadership and counterbalance the prevailing masculine culture by actively encouraging diverse leadership approaches.

  • Rethinking the Monday-Friday work week. Many of us have had to juggle additional responsibilities during lockdown: childcare, homeschooling, looking out for neighbours and relatives in need. For some, myself included, work has had to be truncated into shorter time periods that have evolved away from the typical Monday–Friday. The coronavirus crisis is perhaps an overdue cue to abandon workplace routines that fit neither the demands of the technological era nor its workforce. After all, these regimes were designed to service an era where only one half of the current workforce existed. Enabling women to thrive in the workforce inherently demands review of the framework in which both work, and domestic life, sit. Options such as the four-day work week have already proven to benefit employee wellbeing while preserving productivity. Redesigning the working week could be an unexpected upside from the crisis.

We face a moral imperative to not undo the progress that has helped shape our more equal society. And at a time when many companies and industries are fighting to recover from economic downturn, efficiency and innovation will be critical enablers of success. The World Economic Forum, McKinsey and others have consistently shown that companies with greater gender diversity reap the rewards of higher earnings, increased profit margins and improved levels of innovation. Simply put, organisations cannot afford to undo their achievements in gender equality.

By capitalising on the opportunities and proactively guarding against the risks, leaders in this space can potentially even leapfrog into an era of even greater equality. We have a precious opportunity to build not just a #newnormal, but a #betternormal. Let’s do this now, before the momentum for change fades away.

For information on how Shape Talent can help support you in this process, do get in touch.

Sharon Peake is the founder and MD of Shape Talent Ltd, a gender equality coaching and consulting business established with the sole purpose of getting more women into senior leaderships roles in business. We work with organisations to remove the barriers to women’s progression and we work with individual women, helping them to achieve their career potential.

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[1]. CEPR (19 April, 2020). The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on gender equality.

[2]. Institute of Fiscal Studies (27 May, 2020). How are mothers and fathers balancing work and family under lockdown.

[3]. International Labour Organization (2018). Care work and care jobs for the future of decent work.

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