Has COVID-19 set gender equality back decades? Not in the workplace

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Father holding child's hand

By Dr Holly Birkett and Dr Sarah Forbes
Co-directors of the Equal Parenting Project

Put simply, COVID-19 has created an opportunity to rethink work, to normalise flexible working and fathers caring, breaking down many of the barriers men and particularly fathers have faced in the past

Over the past decade a key question in the boardroom and academic literature has been: how can we improve gender equality in the workplace, reduce the gender pay-gap, and balance gender representation on boards?

Gendered cultural norms around childcare

Progress has been slow. One key lever for improving gender equality in the workplace is breaking down gendered cultural norms around childcaring and supporting dads to take on more caring responsibilities. If we can normalise dads working flexibly and taking on caring responsibilities, we can reduce the pressure on mothers to do it all, improve their labour market attachments, reduce the motherhood penalty, and give families more choice about how they care for their children. To make this a reality, more organisations and policy makers need to actively recognise fatherhood, address what prevents men working flexibly, and support fathers in their parenting responsibilities.

COVID has been a game changer

The timing is ripe for tackling gendered cultural norms around care. While policy has moved towards equality at a snail’s pace over the last 70 years (Maternity Allowance came in in 1948, Paternity Leave in 2002 and Shared Parental Leave in 2015), COVID-19 has provided rocket fuel for changing attitudes and intentions when it comes to flexible working and work-life balance.

We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that COVID-19 has had a very mixed impact on gender equality more generally. Research showed that women were more likely to be furloughed, to lose their jobs, and be in front line roles during the pandemic. Mothers also took on the bulk of the extra caring responsibilities when schools were closed (Chung, Seo, Forbes & Birkett, 2020).

However, there was also a quiet revolution in terms of fathering and paternal identities. During COVID-19 many fathers worked flexibly for the first time ever, either from home or by using flexitime (often around school hours), some even had to act as primary carers as their partners carried out their frontline jobs. Dads began taking on more caring responsibilities (even if mothers were still doing more) and research shows that this experience of spending more time with family and actively being more involved in the care and education of their children began to change the attitudes of dads and affect their future intentions around work-life balance (Chung, Seo, Forbes & Birkett, 2020).

Large numbers of dads began to think about how they could better balance their family and working lives and considered asking for formal flexible working on their return to the office. One study found that 73% of fathers surveyed agreed that they would like to work flexibly to spend more time with children in the future.  Also, 64% of fathers also said that they would like to reduce their working hours to spend more time with family (Chung, Seo, Forbes & Birkett, 2020).

Managers are increasingly supportive

At the same time, managers have also been re-evaluating the merits of flexible working. Millions of managers started having to manage staff working flexibly and realised that flexibility doesn’t equate to lazy or dysfunctional employees. Managers have also become more comfortable engaging with their employees more holistically and more actively recognising they have families, interests and lives beyond work. Put simply, COVID-19 has created an opportunity to rethink work, to normalise flexible working and fathers caring, breaking down many of the barriers men, particularly fathers, have faced in the past.

A fork in the road: more equality or less?

However, this progress is precarious, as we have seen from the recent reaction of the Cabinet regarding the Civil Service and post-COVID working from home. Any move towards more equality could be thwarted in multiple ways. For example, there is evidence of a resurgence of pre-COVID working cultures emphasising presenteeism. Worse still, if we take the wrong actions we run the possibility of widening gender inequality in the workplace among parents.

If companies choose to generally promote flexible working to everyone in a misguided attempt to be inclusive without clear messaging aimed at men, this is likely to lead to more mothers applying for flexible working than ever and fathers being thwarted by enduring barriers around cultural expectations, policy design and career structures. This would likely lead to a larger gender gap in working patterns and possibly a pronounced two-tier workforce along gender lines, with more working mothers than ever working from home or part time while working fathers come into the office.

Encourage dads to apply for flexible working

Now is the time to actively support and encourage dads to take the leap and demand flexible working from their employers, to encourage employers to see flexibility as an opportunity to attract and retain talent, inspire their workforce, embrace equality, and fundamentally change the future of work.

Some employers are blazing the trail, embracing flexibility and supporting all parents, or even focusing on fathers and encouraging them to think about what works best for them and their families. Some employers offer fantastic parenting policies that match leave and pay for fathers to what is offered to mothers.

Some offer holistic return to work support for fathers who have been on extended shared parental leave with a phased return, active parenting groups, even subsidised nurseries, and some are actively encouraging dads to apply for flexible working. However, while organisations are realising they need to focus on their equality, diversity and inclusion agenda in the wake of COVID-19, many are still unsure of how to drive gender equality in the workplace.

5 steps towards flexibility and gender equality:
  1. Ensure all line managers have individual conversations with their staff about preferred ways of working and opportunities for flexible working as part of their PDR.
  2. Actively promote flexible working to men and fathers across the company.
  3. Use case studies of men successfully using flexible working in their company (particularly part-time working or job shares).
  4. Review company policies around flexible working, paternity leave, adoption leave, parental leave and premature birth leave to try and promote more equality.
  5. Ensure someone (not a HR employee) on your SMT or board is the executive lead for EDI, including responsibility for gender equality and supporting fathers across your business.
Annual Working Dads Employer Awards

The Working Dads Employer Awards, led by the Equal Parenting Project at the University of Birmingham and Music Football Fatherhood, will be taking place in Parliament celebrating the great initiatives some organisations already have in place to promote positive change in this area. These awards will identify those organisations that are excelling in one or more areas to support fathers and will drive other organisations to raise their game by encouraging them to aspire to achieving. Through case studies of some of the wonderful initiatives out there, we can inspire all employers to think about how they can support fathers to care and drive gender equality.

Find out more about the awards.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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