Think Women: Make the pandemic juggling act work for you

In celebration of International Women’s Day, and to continue the year-round conversation about women’s equality at work, Dr Sue Shortland talks to Fiona Murchie about structural barriers to female progression.

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This year, had it been normal, would be the fourth year Relocate Global marked International Women’s Day on 8 March with a growing community of men and women committed to finding more out about what it means to be female in the global workforce. Unfortunately, Covid-19 conspired to make sure the annual Think Women meeting of inspirational speakers and informal networking could not happen as usual at the Institute of Directors in London.Yet, while we couldn’t meet in person, you can still join the Think Women community and watch four webinars dedicated to showcasing why and how as individuals and businesses we can support women and young girls globally achieve all their aspirations and move the dial on female equality at work.This is important. Mercer’s ground-breaking analysis shows that at current rates, women will achieve pay parity with men in 2050. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to put this back even further, as the McKinsey Global Institute report concluded in summer 2020.Introducing this webinar with Dr Sue Shortland, Relocate Global’s Managing Editor, Fiona Murchie said, “It’s been a difficult past year for everyone. Since the pandemic, lockdown and widespreadworking from home, there are potentially a lot of women struggling with juggling childcare and their careers. I thought it’d be really useful to catch up to find out how women have been most affected over the past year.”

Watch the video replay

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Gender pay gap reporting and the Covid-19 pandemic

One area that should show us the impact is in future gender pay gap reporting. Posponed for this year and last, gender pay gaps and pay gap reporting is a complex area, linked to occupational segregation and intersectionality with protected characteristics, including an individual’s ethnicity.Asked why this is the case, Dr Sue Shortland explained, “Despite the introduction of monitoring and gender pay gap reporting requirements, we have seen some progress, but still there is clearly a gap between what men and women earn. That’s just in the overall sphere. It is not specific to ethnicities or any other protected characteristics linked to the Equality Act for example.“We don’t have ethnicity pay gap reporting, but that might be coming. However, it is generally known that not only is there a gender pay gap, but also an ethnicity pay gap. This is something employers need to be looking at."

What are the causes of gender and ethnicity pay gaps?

“Pay gaps are linked to horizontal and vertical workforce segregation,” continued Dr Sue Shortland. “Women and people with particular characteristics are being channelled horizontally into particular occupations and professions. In respect of gender, when women start to dominate a particular sector, then we see it tends to be a sector less valued in terms of public perceptions or less pay. This happens with ethnicities as well.“We know this from the Covid-19 pandemic because we hear all the time about ethnic minorities being channelled and working in professions that are more public facing and therefore more exposed to the virus.“Then there’s vertical segregation. That’s about how far people rise up hierarchies. Women on the whole don’t tend to rise to the very top jobs or don’t hold as many as men do. Similarly, we have similar issues for ethnicities and people with disabilities and so on.“So what you begin to see is people being channelled into those occupations that don’t attract the best pay then vertical segregation meaning women and people from minority and protected groups are not moving up the ranks of organisations. Those things together combine and cement into place the gender pay gap and potentially ethnicity and disability pay gaps.”

What can be done to overcome workplace segregation?

For Dr Sue Shortland, rebalancing occupational roles vertically and horizontally includes women and young girls thinking much more broadly about what jobs and career paths are available to them, and building transferable skills that can help them move around different sectors and up through the ranks.“I think it’s really important that young women look beyond the traditional female occupations. That’s the starting point. It’s the Five Cs: caring, catering, cleaning, cashiering and clerical. Those are the ones young women tend to be channelled into and all the intersections too around ethnicity.“Of course, there’s nothing wrong with clerical or cashiering, catering, caring or cleaning work. But it’s difficult to rise up the ranks from those positions. It really is about thinking what is out there. STEM jobs pay really well and women do them really well.”As we have seen from the recent Great International Education and Schools Fair, there is excellent STEM/STEAM teaching within schools that is igniting interest in young people. “Most definitely this starts at school,” says Dr Sue Shortland. “It’s important for women not to shy away from the sciences.“Research shows that girls in single-sex schools tend to do better in sciences because they are not held back. There’s no reason why they can’t do as well as boys. Overall, when you look at educational degrees, women outperform men. There is no reason why women shouldn’t be taking subjects that will open up different types of careers for them.”

Making the pandemic’s additional workload work for women

Shifting the focus to women already in the workplace, it is widely known women still tend to bear the brunt of caring responsibilities. Research and studies also show the pandemic has exacerbated this.“Women have really struggled during the pandemic because obviously a lot of the roles they do perform, some of them are administrative, clerical type roles, which can be done online. This gives them the opportunity to be with the children, as well as continue to carry out whatever household and caring roles they have,” says Dr Sue Shortland. “This means trying to keep up with what is happening in the workplace and what’s required in a household level too.”And yet, short of getting partners to do more, the pandemic could be an opportunity to leverage the skills and knowledge gained from these past hard 12 months to their advantage. Women can focus on what they have learnt from all the juggling, balancing and extra responsibility in the pandemic and make use of that when it comes to applying for new jobs.“Those actions you’ve had to take –the time management and different roles you’ve had to take on – you can use those in an interview situation,” says Dr Sue Shortland. “Don’t negate them saying ‘I’ve only been home schooling’. Don’t undermine what you’ve been doing and with potentially little help. It is an incredible skill to balance caring with work and home education and employers value it.“Most women aren’t trained teachers,so don’t underplay it. It demonstrates flexibility and time management and the ability to keep a team on the right track. Use it ladies and put in on those competency-based questionnaires – it’s a challenge you’ve met admirably.”

A new age of flexible working post-pandemic?

The forced shift from office-based to home-based working life is prompting significant questions about how and where people will work post-pandemic.“Employers realise you don’t have to have expensive offices and need people to come into to sit there all day," says Dr Sue Shortland. "People can work quite efficiently and effectively from home. I think there will be more of a mix between home working and getting together with teams when you need to and want that face-to-face interaction. It depends on the nature of the job, the interaction with customers and clients and the interaction you need with teams.“Certainly, it’s going to change. I think employers are going to be much more flexible, especially with calls from the CIPD and others like Working Families to offer flexible working from day one.”For international mobility, change could also be in the horizon, especially with family and personal wellbeing set to remain high on the agenda. There is an argument that long-term assignments could be on the way back. I don’t think you are ever going to be in a situation where you won’t need international experience to operate on the global stage.“Businesses are globalising more and more and companies are introducing operations in new and emerging destinations. They must have people who have got that experience of working internationally. Working virtually with international teams doesn’t give you that cultural adjustment or cultural competency you get from working on the ground with local people, which really makes a difference to your leadership skills.”

Get involved and take the lead

In terms of the next steps, Dr Sue Shortland had a practical message for all women. “Minority groups need to participate. No matter what your race, religion, gender, sexuality, everyone who wants to needs to be putting themselves forward and getting that experience.“How you become inspirational leaders is by talking and empathising and building rapport, working with and through people. The more you are seen, and the more people relate to you, the better you are perceivedas being inspirational. “This takes us back to women having to set their sights high and standout. It does put more pressure on you to perform, but if you do, you build yourself up and have more faith and confidence in yourself. That is going to be very helpful.”

Watch additional Think Women video replays

Why is Purpose so Important for Women Now? with Sarah Rozenthuler
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Ripples of Change for Women in the Post Pandemic World with Vlatka Hlupic
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If you want to learn more about Think Women and future activities and workshops please email Fiona Murchie via

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