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Equality, women and work: damage control in 2021

Equality, women and work: damage control in 2021

COVID-19 has shut borders, closed businesses, and undone decades of progress for working women. Your business may have been top of the class for gender equity pre-2020, but take your eye off the ball now, and the results could be irreversible.

1: Today’s landscape
2: Achievements so far
3: Helping women advance

Are women doing more work than ever in 2021?

Just when things were starting to look up for female workers, 2020 rolled around. A year synonymous with negative events also ushered in even tougher times for women. If you’re experiencing the burden of home and work life like never before, you’re certainly not alone. 

And 2021 has seen no let-up. A year on from the shocking shift to lockdown living, women not only continue to hold down their jobs but the majority of homeschooling and housework as well.


Forget the 9 to 5. Many female workers are clocking up more hours than ever, as the utopia of work/life balance slips further away. 

In the UK, women are 43% more likely than men to have increased their hours beyond a standard working week. For moms and those with kids at home, these increased hours have correlated with mental health issues, too. 

We can only imagine what that’s done for their enjoyment of, and engagement with, their careers as well.

… or jobless

But while some women are digging deep and working harder, others are suffering — disproportionately — from the COVID-19 economic fallout.

In 2020, American women were more employed than men. But by the end of last year, 5.4 million female workers had lost their jobs. And in December 2020 alone, 156,000 women were made unemployed, while men gained 16,000 new roles.

The employment landscape has not only been skewed by gender lines but by race, wealth, disability, and migration status, too, with Black and Latina women hit hardest. 

What does this signal to women at the start of their careers?

Early talent is in a particularly precarious position, women are already held back at their career starting blocks by the graduate gender pay gap. After a turbulent pandemic, can we reassure female graduates that hard work will pay off?


Working from home has proved to be a successful pilot study for many businesses. Most organizations are now expected to embrace a flexible, part-home, part-office working structure — a model that disproportionately benefits women (for once!).

women in the workplace

🗯 “Greater autonomy over the work/life balance is linked to improved productivity and the retention of women.”

— Laura Farris, U.K. Member of Parliament and Co-Chair of the Women & Work APPG

In the U.K, mandatory Gender Pay Reporting returns in October 2021, having been paused during the pandemic. Businesses will again have to offer up precise data on the numbers of employed women and what they are paid. 

The result? Greater transparency regarding equal pay — and more evidence to incite change.

They’re both welcome, albeit overdue, steps forward for today’s early talent and beyond.

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What have, and haven’t, we achieved for women in work?

The COVID pandemic pulled the rug out from underneath us in many, many ways — and women have borne the brunt of professional setbacks. 

But the pandemic has also hit at a time of emerging change in the working world. It’s up to us to not let what good had been started slip away, then build upon it too. For example:

👉 Wellbeing commitments

The progress: Wellbeing is increasingly on the agenda for organizations. This is good news for women, who are more at risk of ill mental health and, arguably, more engaged with workplace wellbeing initiatives, too.

What’s next? Women-centric health issues need to become less taboo in a work environment, or else female workers will continue to suffer in silence. Equally, stress should no longer be a stigma, but something we all actively work to avoid. 

Women represent an incredible source of productivity in the workplace, but not if we let them burn out. Prioritizing wellbeing will also be crucial to attract, and retain, Gen Z women — for whom a healthy work-life is non-negotiable.

👉 Female representation on the rise in some sectors

The progress: Notoriously male-dominated industries like tech and finance are seeing increased gender diversity in the workforce. And, in some cases, in leadership positions too.

Arguably most promising is marketing, where women now hold 45.4% of all executive positions.

What’s next? Women from minorities and women from younger generations — a.k.a early talent — aren’t reflected in this progress. That has to change. We don’t close the pay and opportunity gap by favoring white women; we need to include and promote women of all nationalities and backgrounds instead.

This also means pushing for female representation at top levels and fighting the “leaky pipeline for women in leadership”. Equal representation in support staff level is not enough! Let’s show early talent in particular what they can achieve.

👉 Gender-inclusivity is more front of mind

The progress: There’s been a significant shift in public opinion, and perception, regarding gender roles in recent decades. In the US, 91% of people think gender equality is very important. A median of 86% of people in Europe think the same.

What’s next? We need to think less and do more. Be honest with yourself: does your organization spend more time talking about DEI and gender equality than “doing”? Or is your focus on rolling out programs and initiatives to actually make it happen?

Importantly, you need to consider ways to increase equity for today’s female workforce, as well as the new grads and early talent heading your way soon.

Helping women advance at work (rather than holding them back)

Here’s what you, and your organization, should be doing to help level the gender playing field in your teams — if you haven’t done already.


Dismantle the myth of ‘gendered jobs’

Let’s play a quick association game. Hold in your mind’s eye, a:

  • Receptionist
  • Data analyst
  • Coder
  • HR manager

… Who did you imagine? 

Gender stereotypes persist even in our own sectors. Did you imagine the HR manager as a woman or a man?

HR might be bucking the macro trend, often cited as a “female-dominated profession”. But that very same descriptor also risks a lack of gender diversity too, in HR and in other lines of work.

🗯 “Stereotyping a job as “women’s work” and societal biases that grant women less authority than men harm us all”

— Sarah Thebaud and Laura Doering, writing for the BBC

In order to stop perpetuating the opportunity, pay, and progression gap between male and female workers, we have to stop gendering jobs. Only then will we pave the way for young women and established female workers to achieve what they want to in their careers.


Reach out to working moms

It will take some time to remove gender stereotypes from the world of work. We need a more immediate solution as well.

As 2021 rolls on, we should all pay particular attention to working moms and guardians. How are they coping with their workloads and home responsibilities? 

Fingers crossed we’ve turned a corner now in the pandemic, with kids back at school and a roadmap to “normality” laid out before us. But these overwhelmed and overworked women aren’t out of the woods just yet. 

If they’re close to burning out, it’s going to take weeks, or months, of less stress to help them recover. Energy gained from after-work activities helps us to cope with daily work pressures… but for parents, those after-work hours can be just as challenging, if not more!

Don’t let working moms be martyrs — pushing on against the struggles of being a female worker during the pandemic. Give them the tools they need to organize their time as needed. Can you provide an email sign-off that helps manage client expectations during this busy time, for example?


Celebrate impact, not hours clocked

What metrics do you use, formally or informally, to recognize hard graft?

Back in the days of office-based work, we were told being “first in, last out” would get our leaders’ attention — a practice that favored men over mothers. But now that our presence at work is largely digital, not physical, that yardstick no longer applies.

The pandemic’s redefinition of our working habits may actually present an opportunity here. We can reset our “success” metrics to focus on impact and engagement — not time spent at our desks.


Challenge gender bias (even if it’s awkward)

Men are 33% more likely to interrupt women in conversation than they are other men. That’s true in face-to-face meetings and, chances are, it’s also true in Zooms and other VCs, where conversation flows less freely.

We all need to challenge gendered discrimination, ensuring every worker has a platform to speak — and be heard. This can be achieved with a ‘zero interruptions policy’ in meetings or stepping in to assert the interrupted employee’s speaking rights. When women can see other women being listened to and respected, they too will feel inspired and encouraged to share their ideas as well. This is incredibly important for female early talent; they might just be the ones to turn generations of gender inequality upside down.

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Let’s make change

If you have concerns about discrimination in your workplace, Headstart can help level the playing field. Find out how our recruitment software can help fight bias in your hiring process. 

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