Five ways employers can champion gender equality right now

Post author image. Charlotte Woodworth
Charlotte Woodworth shares insight on being flexible, listening with empathy and the utilisation of the Government’s Job Retention Scheme (JRS) to support women and protect gender equality.

Almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and we are in lockdown again. Experience tells us women are bearing the brunt of many of the measures, with potentially grave consequences for the immediate future and longer term. However, the choices responsible businesses make now could not only mitigate some of the worse effects but also accelerate progress toward a more equal future.

If we continue to listen, learn and adapt, we can both soften some of the hardest impacts and carry forward new thinking into the future.

Considering the lessons learnt so far, Business in the Community (BITC) has identified five key steps employers should take to protect gender equality:

  1. Furlough or grant additional paid leave to those that need it.
  2. Be flexible and realistic about workload at this time.
  3. Impact assess your plans and avoid groupthink.
  4. Respond to the current increase in domestic abuse.
  5. Listen, and lead with empathy and inclusion.

1. Furlough or grant additional paid leave to those that need it

The Government Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme allows organisations to furlough staff who may have childcare issues arising from COVID-19 (eg. school closures); claiming back 80% of their salaries up to £2500 a month. Organisations are able to do this even if you, or the employee in question, have never used the furlough scheme before. It can be flexible – for example allowing staff to simply reduce their hours, and only claiming furlough support for those hours they do not work.

BITC recommends that employers top up furlough support to 100% where possible, thereby ensuring that those workers who are forced to reduce their hours do not lose out financially.

Many employers have also chosen to grant employees who have extra caring responsibilities, additional paid leave to support them in coping with the effects of COVID-19. Examples of this are; extending emergency dependent leave, bolstering current parental leave schemes, or as a minimum offering unpaid extra holiday. Some employers have also extended the financial support available to pay for childcare costs. Much of the informal care many working parents rely on e.g. grandparents is no longer available, and some are using agency and other support services to help instead, thereby incurring extra costs.

Alongside adopting changed policies to support teams, think about how to effectively implement them. This means ensuring managers understand the approach and how to apply it. Ensure employees know what is available and, that crucially managers work to dispel any concerns about the longer term impact on employees’ careers.

BITC’s Equal Lives research found concerns about the perception of those taking parental leave – that they are in some way less committed or ambitious. This can weigh on the minds of those thinking about taking parental leave, fathers in particular. Employers can showcase senior leaders taking time out to deliver caring responsibilities and make it clear that those utilising these policies will not be penalised.

Taking this action now will help ensure the retention of talented people, many of them women, who, particularly at this time are feeling forced to choose between paid work and responsibilities at home. It will also stand you in good stead as an employer who supports people, of all genders, to have a good work life balance.

2. Be flexible – and realistic

Currently many employers have adopted a more flexible approach to work, recognising that staff are coping with changed circumstances. Examples include supporting staff to work varied or reduced hours and helping teams to develop work schedules that allow for home-schooling timetables. These actions can be taken formally – by granting staff a ‘time code’, or more informally by using a calendar colour to indicate they are managing other responsibilities during a certain period.

However, flexible hours cannot magically add extra hours into the day. It is crucial employers recognise that for many staff there needs to be a reduction in workload. This could be delaying projects, re-prioritising work streams, or reallocating some responsibilities. These actions needs to be taken in consultation with teams. Consider how these changes might impact on subsequent performance reviews. Some employers have chosen to delay appraisal processes to reflect the extraordinary circumstances of the past year.

Taking action now can help address the increased rates of anxiety we are seeing, and avoid burnout. This is also a golden opportunity to review your wider approach to flexible working; seizing changed attitudes and experiences to mainstream a culture that focusses much more on delivery and achievements, rather than hours worked.

3. Impact assess any changed policies or plans

Previous economic downturns have seen some groups significantly worse affected than others, but decision makers rarely intend this. Before you implement any changes, consider who will be most affected – be it closing down physical sites, restructuring your operations or simply cancelling a particular function.
BITC’s Responsible Restructures toolkit can help you identify if some groups are set to be disproportionately effected and includes suggestions to prevent and mitigate these impacts.

You should also ensure that a wide range of people inform and shape your plans. Avoiding groupthink will lower the risk of blind spots around, for example, how single parents – who data tells us are having a particularly challenging time right nowiiii – will be affected. Regular engagement with employee networks will be invaluable.

4. Address domestic abuse

The United Nations has described domestic violence as a “shadow pandemic”. In the UK, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline rose by 80% in June last year. Many employers have for the first time adopted explicit, tailored wellbeing policies considering domestic abuse, tackling what has often been viewed as an ‘in the home’ problem. BITC’s updated toolkit for employers on domestic abuse can help you ensure you are providing your staff with the right support.

5. Listen, and lead with empathy and inclusion

It has been said we are experiencing the same storm, but in different boats. No two people’s pandemic is the same; Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff are more likely to have a had a loved one diei .Those with caring responsibilities are more likely to report struggles with juggling responsibilities ii and women are significantly more likely to face domestic abuseiii .

As businesses grapple with changing circumstances with some severely impacted by the pandemic and others relatively insulated, it has never been more important to keep in touch with what your teams are feeling. What employees need will be different, changing and varied. Many employers are holding more frequent ‘listening’ sessions, be it ‘all staff’ events or specific focus groups, engagement with employee networks or pulse surveys. Senior leaders should keep a close eye on what your teams are telling you and seek to adapt and respond accordingly.

We will soon mark a year since we first went into lockdown here in the UK; much has changed but there are also many lessons learnt. Business has reacted at pace and scale, and some previously unthinkable things have been achieved; if we continue to listen, learn and adapt we can both soften some of the hardest impacts – and carry forward new thinking into the future.

How are women being affected by COVID-19 lockdowns?

Women are:

  • more likely to be picking up extra childcare duties: women did two thirds additional childcare duties.
    Spent more time on unpaid work than men during lockdown1
  • more likely to be furloughed than men, either at their own request, because of individual employer’s choices, or as a result of the industries most affected by lockdown2
  • facing increased unemployment compared to men during 2020. A trend replicated across Europe and North America3
  • experiencing a sharp rise in domestic abuse
  • reducing their use of preventative health care measures e.g. cancer scans4
  • experiencing a sharp rise in anxiety and mental health issues5


1 ONS Government Parenting in lockdown: Coronavirus and the effects on work-life balance
2 Women’s Budget Group (WBG) HMRC data prompts concern of ‘gender furlough gap’
3 Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) How are mothers and fathers balancing work and family under lockdown?
4 Health Care Cost Institute
5 Kings College London Why has Covid-19 impacted the mental health and wellbeing of women the most?


i ONS Government Corovnavirus Deaths-update
ii ONS Government Parenting in lockdown: Coronavirus and the effects on work-life balance
iii The BBC Women are significantly more likely to face domestic abuse
iiii Workplace Insight. Covid-19 crisis has created unique challenges for working single parents
v EHRC Equality and Human Rights Commission Research report 47 The impacts of the current recession