Last week’s City of London event was a sobering reminder that, although home-working during the pandemic, enjoyed by sectors such as finance, may result in a positive outcome for gender equity at work, Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on many women’s lives.
“Covid has exposed many inequalities,” City of London Corporation chair of policy and resources Catherine McGuinness opened the 15th City of London International Women’s Day event by saying.
“But the greater flexibility has the potential to reshape the workplace and make it accessible. To make the most of this and ensure we don’t lose the progress we’ve made, we must be inclusive.”
TheCityUK managing director, public affairs, policy and research Emma Reynolds added that although in general women have ended up picking up even more childcare responsibilities during the pandemic in the short term, “in the long term, when we get to define the new normal, there are real opportunities to empower women”.
She cautioned with only 6% of women CEOs in financial services, we need to ensure decisions such as returning to offices are made inclusively. “We need more women in senior positions, not just for younger women to aspire to, they are also important to change men’s attitudes to what good leadership looks like,” she said.
Journalist and author Harriet Minter added returning to the City, or any office, must be a carefully considered employer decision. She said going back can’t be left to individual employees to decide or we will end up with more women at home and a “new boys’ network in the office” having conversations and not including the women, creating a two-tier system.
However, these potentially positive outcomes for City workers were put into sharp perspective by the three other speakers at the event: Refuge campaigner Natasha Saunders, Trussell Trust CEO Emma Revie and Sandra Husbands, director of public health for City and Hackney.
Saunders shared her story of eight years of sexual, emotional, financial and verbal abuse. “I was belittled, humiliated and made to feel worthless, I was a prisoner in my own home,” she said. Calls to domestic abuse services have skyrocketed during the pandemic, and 1.6m women in the UK suffer abuse each year.
Revie spoke of the huge rise in the use of foodbanks. “Even before the pandemic, over the past five years we’ve seen a 74% increase in people coming to foodbanks,” she said, adding this number is expected to increase as furloughing ends and benefits are reduced.
“It’s about people not being able to afford food, not people not having access because of shielding during the pandemic. It disproportionately affects women because single parents are overrepresented [at foodbanks] and 90% of single parents in our country are women. There was a point in April when I genuinely thought we would have to close down, and yet our volunteers, who are 70% women, continued to step forward.”
There will not be a net-positive outcome for women from the pandemic, Revie said, and Husbands agreed. There is an additional burden of home-schooling is on women, more women are in jobs that can’t be done from home, on top of additional responsibilities they already have in the home,” she said.
“This has increased the mental health burden more among women than men. We have to think about how we support particular parts of our population in terms of mental health. There will not be a net-positive result from the pandemic.”