Published on 8 March 2024
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Navigating gender equality in a post-Covid world

Despite global efforts, the realisation of gender parity remains challenging. Although the UK has made progress, concerns remain about the representation of women in leadership positions and the impact of flexible working arrangements on their career progression. Dr Nina Jörden makes the case for policy engagement aimed at fully understanding how post-Covid work dynamics, particularly flexible working arrangements, affect the pursuit of equality in the workplace.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential drivers of sustainable development. Protected within the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Goal 5 to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” focuses on ending discrimination, eliminating violence against women and girls, ending harmful practices such as early and forced marriage, respecting the value of unpaid care and domestic work, and ensuring effective participation in political and economic leadership. Yet, despite concerted global efforts, recent data and analyses indicate that only 15% of targets are on track to be met by 2030.

The Global Gender Gap Index, an annual evaluation of gender equality across economic participation, education, health, and political empowerment, serves as a stark reminder that no country, irrespective of its economic standing, has realised complete gender parity. Even more worrisome is the fact that, although the Index has returned to levels seen before the pandemic, the pace of improvement has notably decelerated. UN Women reports that at the current rate, achieving workplace parity would require 140 years.

According to the data, Europe leads with the highest gender parity among regions at 76.3%, with a third of its countries ranking within the top 20 globally. Iceland, Norway, and Finland stand out as the top-performing nations. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Cyprus lag behind their European neighbours. The United Kingdom (UK) holds 15th place globally, surpassing the Philippines but trailing Costa Rica.

Amid the Covid pandemic, the global labour force participation rate fell more sharply for women (3.4%) than men (2.4%). Women have been (re-)entering the workforce at a slightly higher rate than men since then, resulting in a modest recovery in gender parity. However, progress remains piecemeal, with parity currently standing at its second-lowest level since 2006 and significantly below (five percentage points) its peak of 69% in 2009.

Underlying these data, however, are a series of workplace transformations – remote working, hybrid working, flexible working hours, virtual collaboration – that may affect men and women differently.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) data reveals that in 2003, only two-thirds of  mothers in the UK were employed, but that this has risen to 75% today, the highest level in two decades. Families where both parents work full-time outnumbered those where one partner works full-time and the other part-time for the first time in 2020. Women in the UK have not been forced out of the workplace by Covid-19.

This trend can be attributed partly to economic necessity, but also to the growing accessibility of flexible work arrangements. These options allow primary caregivers to effectively manage both their work and their caring responsibilities, facilitating their continued participation in the labour force.  However, it’s crucial to not only consider the sheer number of women in the workforce but also the roles they occupy.

Globally, LinkedIn data indicates that the proportion of women in leadership positions—defined as directors, vice presidents (VPs), or C-suite roles—stood at 32.2% in 2023, compared to 41.9% of the workforce in general. Across all industries, women continue to hold fewer leadership positions than men, with notable disparities in sectors like manufacturing (24.6% women), agriculture (23.3%), supply chain and transport (23.0%), oil, gas, and mining (18.6%), and infrastructure (16.1%).

In contrast, the UK presents more promising trends. Recent data suggests progress, especially in corporate leadership. FTSE 350 companies surpassed the target of achieving an average of 40% female representation on boards three years earlier than anticipated. It is a striking increase from just 9.5% in 2011. With 77% of FTSE 100 companies having four or more women on their boards, the UK ranks second globally in terms of gender diversity on boards, trailing only behind France (which operates under a quota system in contrast to the UK’s voluntary approach).

While the strides made in enhancing gender equality within the boardrooms of UK organisations deserve praise, recent data underlines concerning trends that warrant further exploration:

  • More than a third of employed women in the UK (35%) rate their mental wellbeing as poor or very poor.

  • Despite 88% of respondents working full-time, almost half of them bear primary responsibility for household chores such as cleaning or caring for dependents. Nearly four out of ten women express feeling compelled to prioritise their partner’s career over their own.

  • A staggering 97% of women believe that requesting flexible working arrangements could negatively impact their prospects for advancement at work. Additionally, nearly four in ten (37%) women with hybrid work setups report feeling excluded from meetings, decision-making processes, or informal interactions.

The concern is that the increasing availability of flexible work options (such as hybrid arrangements, remote work, compressed hours, etc.) may increase female labour force participation, but at the expense of quality of life at work and career advancement.

Research highlights the stigma associated with the utilisation of flexible work schemes, spreading the perception that commitment to work is reduced. Moreover, being physically present in the office fosters networking and mentorship opportunities crucial for career growth. Studies indicate that individuals who spend more time in the office engaging face-to-face with managers are more likely to be considered for promotions compared to remote workers.

This creates a vicious cycle: as women typically assume primary responsibility for family duties, they often opt for flexible work arrangements to reconcile family and work obligations. However, leveraging these opportunities often diminishes their chances of advancing to managerial positions. Consequently, their partner’s career is often prioritised, leading women to prioritise family responsibilities over their professional aspirations even more.

Companies offer flexible working arrangements with positive intentions, but may inadvertently reduce progress in terms of women’s representation in leadership roles. What we urgently require is a societal reassessment of the role of women. The prevailing expectation that women prioritise family obligations over career aspirations presents a significant obstacle to achieving gender equality in the workplace. Political intervention in this regard is crucial to instigate substantial change. While individuals or couples may choose to uphold certain values, if these values are not aligned with the societal norm, they encounter resistance and have minimal chance of acceptance. Policymakers can create conditions that facilitate gender equality in the midst of a changing world of work. To advance economic participation and equal opportunities for women, it is imperative to have a robust political commitment specifically addressing the impact of evolving work dynamics on gender equality.

Recommendations for improving gender equality in the workplace:

  1. Promote flexible labour policies: Encourage organisations to adopt flexible working arrangements, including remote working, flexible work hours, and shortened work weeks. Importantly, these initiatives should cater to the diverse needs of both male and female employees.

  2. Combat stigmatisation and bias: Conduct training programmes for employers to increase awareness of unconscious bias and address stereotypes associated with flexible work setups. Emphasize the importance of valuing employees based on their contributions rather than their work location or schedule.

  3. Supporting work-life balance: Provide resources and assistance to employees, particularly women, to ensure they maintain a healthy equilibrium between work and personal life. This support may encompass access to childcare facilities, parental leave options, and initiatives promoting mental wellbeing.

  4. Promote gender diversity in leadership roles: Establish targets and incentives for companies to enhance gender diversity in leadership positions, including executive boards and senior roles. Encourage transparency in reporting gender diversity metrics and acknowledging organisations demonstrating progress.

  5. Foster an inclusive work environment: Cultivate a workplace culture that values diversity and fosters career advancement opportunities for all employees, irrespective of gender or work arrangement. Implementing measures to ensure remote workers have equal access to professional development and networking avenues.

  6. Research and data collection: Invest in research and data collection efforts to gain deeper insights into the impact of flexible work arrangements on gender equality outcomes. Collect comprehensive data on the prevalence and effectiveness of flexible working arrangements, as well as identifying any unintended consequences for women’s career advancement.

Achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls, as outlined in Goal 5 of the SDGs, necessitates a holistic approach which needs to be strongly backed by political will. Deflecting responsibility to individuals or employers is careless; we need government backed policies that enable female workers to align their actions with societal values.

In the UK, despite its current leading position in terms of gender equality, recent data suggests that maintaining this status quo is not assured, and there is a risk of widening disparities if we fail to fully comprehend the impact of evolving workplace dynamics on women’s experiences and career advancement.

In the face of challenges such as an aging population, skills shortages, and declining economic productivity, it is imperative to prioritise the broad integration of women into the labour market across various sectors and organisational hierarchies. This does not only foster economic growth but also ensures political stability and social cohesion.

Crossing Channels podcast: Why are women disadvantaged in the workplace?

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Dr Nina Jörden

Research Associate

Dr Nina Jörden is a Research Associate at the Bennett Institute, specialising in the study of organisational structures, processes, and practices. Her research is driven by three central themes: Her...

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