Covid-19 pandemic: a real risk of diluting decades of workplace progress

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Lianne Craig
Hausfeld, London

Stella Gartagani
Hausfeld, London

Ellen Gracey
Hausfeld, London

Lisa Mildt
Hausfeld, London


Almost one year into the pandemic, Covid-19 has caused severe disruptions to workforces in countries across the world, negatively impacting individuals personally and professionally. Notwithstanding this, it has demonstrated the benefits of technology and created a more flexible and dynamic working environment with increased trust between employer and employee. However, this new method of working involves significant risks and challenges. While Covid-19 has impacted all individuals, there is evidence that women have been disproportionately affected through intensified work, childcare and household pressures.

Gender inequality and Covid-19

Gender inequality has been a longstanding issue and it is likely that Covid-19 will have a regressive effect on the progress made to date to achieve gender equality. In recent years, much has been done to advance gender equality such as raising awareness of unconscious bias and lessening the gender pay gap, particularly in traditionally male-dominated professions such as law. However, these developments have been gradual, and Covid-19 now threatens to undo the positive steps made.

According to a report by McKinsey& Company, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s. Women make up 39 per cent of global employment but account for 54 per cent of overall job losses.[1In addition, the payment schism between genders has become more apparent, in particular as women comprise the majority of the workforce of the industries that have been most affected by the pandemic (for example, hospitality, tourism and retail). While many businesses and organisations would have previously prioritised initiatives to tackle gender inequality issues, they have now had to shift their focus to technology and health and safety measures while trying to remain afloat. However, evidence shows that it has become more important than ever to increase focus on these gender inequality issues and drive these movements forward.

Thompson Reuters reports in Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Global Report 2020 that there is a 63 per cent reduction between female junior associates and equity partners.[2This means that while more than half of junior associates are women, only one fifth are at equity partner levels. Gender pay gaps are often associated with a lack of women in senior positions and it is likely that the impact of this crisis will feed through to negatively affect women moving into senior positions. The lack of women in senior roles will be compounded by the pressure on women to carry out more childcare, household and caring duties while continuing to work.

Flexible working

The inequality between males and females in the workplace has been exacerbated by the need for individuals to work from home and become primary care givers;55 per cent of 400 women surveyed by The Law Society Gazette in October 2020 answered that caring responsibilities increased over previous months because of Covid-19.[3While flexible working could potentially make juggling these responsibilities easier, it canals lead to longer working days and an expectation that the employee should always be available.

McKinsey & Company reports in Women in the Workplace 2020 that 76per cent of mothers with children under the age of ten perceive childcare as one of their biggest challenges of the pandemic.[4] A report from Boston Consulting Group found that at the start of the lockdown restrictions in Europe and the US, working women spent an average of 15 hours a week more on childcare and household tasks than men.[5] Research undertaken by the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich during March and April 2020 showed that working women in Germany, the UK and the US spend significantly more time home-schooling and caring for children compared to men with similar earnings.[6]

It should also be noted that Black and Latina mothers feel the burden of being a sole carer most heavily; Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely to have sole caring responsibilities compared to white women whereas the number is even higher for Black mothers who are two times more likely to be the sole carer.[7] This dual responsibility of a working mother and carer for children combines the two biggest challenges women face: bias and the woman’s role in the household.[8] These sudden changes to an individual’s work-life balance is affecting women’s mental health and, rather than availing of the perceived advantages of flexible working, many women are now reconsidering their current and long-term career prospects.[9]

Navigating a way forward

Due to the challenges faced by women in the ‘virtual’ workplace, potentially through decrease in earnings and working while home-schooling and looking after children, employers now have the opportunity to support female employees and enhance diversity within the organisation, despite Covid-19. While a certain element of fire-fighting and crisis management was essential as the pandemic emerged, gender diversity and inclusion can now be brought to the fore as key issues for the business.

Given that the new working environment will likely remain to some extent in the future as a hybrid between home and office-based work, it has become more important than ever to ensure that sufficient measures are put in place to support individuals who have additional household and care responsibilities. These measures can be put in place now as the pandemic evolves to ensure that women, who are statistically more likely to shoulder a greater share of the responsibilities of family life, are not disproportionately impacted.

Managing physical and mental wellbeing should also be a top priority for employers in supporting employees in the workplace, whether this is in the office or at home. Tailoring counselling and improving employees’ wellbeing such as adjusting working hours, helping create work-life boundaries, setting realistic deadlines, and offering enhanced employee benefits to be used when needed can all be utilised to ensure employees are protected, no matter where they are working.


The year 2020 was expected to be ground-breaking for women’s rights, marking the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 1995, which remains the most comprehensive roadmap for achieving gender equality globally. Yet, the pandemic of 2020 has had a disproportionate impact on women in the workplace; gender equality faces new barriers and flexible working now places additional pressures on women juggling working and parenting. In the context of the legal profession, while gradual progress had been made in reducing gender inequality, it is now more important than ever to focus on this issue and reduce the effects of Covid-19 in affecting women’s long-term career prospects.

Working remotely, while creating numerous benefits such as flexible working hours, has often led to employers’ increased demand for employee’s time. Women, statistically more likely to be the primary caregiver, have been directly impacted by the need to carry out childcare during the pandemic. Employers now have the opportunity to recognise the new barriers faced by women in the workplace and can focus on providing essential support to their employees in order to ensure a diverse and dynamic culture can continue to prosper, despite Covid-19.

[1]McKinsey & Company, “COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects” 15 July 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/covid-19-and-gender-equality-countering-the-regressive-effects

[2]Thompson Reuters Institute and Acritas, “Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Global Report 2020”, page 6, https://www.legalexecutiveinstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Transforming-Womens-Leadership-in-the-Law-Global-Report-2020.pdf

[3]The Law Society Gazette, “Women in law continue to be put under pressure by crisis”, 30 October 2020, https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/commentary-and-opinion/women-in-law-continue-to-be-put-under-pressure-by-crisis/5106218.article

[5]BCG, “Easing the COVID-19 Burden on Working Parents”, 21 May 2020,


[6]Cambridge-INET Working Paper Series No: 2020/18 (updated on 23 April 2020), https://www.inet.econ.cam.ac.uk/working-paper-pdfs/wp2018.pdf



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