Has Covid-19 changed the world of work, and women’s place in it?

After taking part in a panel discussion with the Women and Work APPG, led by Laura Farris MP, Yvonne Braun, our Executive Sponsor for Diversity and Inclusion, blogs on how remote working as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has changed perceptions around places and structures of work, the gendered impacts of these changes and the challenges and opportunities this radical shift might present in future.

Covid-19 has accelerated the move towards remote, virtual working. This is especially true for our own sector, as the crisis has brought about unprecedented levels of working from home. Most large ABI members have 95% of their staff working from home right now – just six months ago, this would have been unimaginable. Not only that, but they have all done it quite successfully, as Megan Butler, Executive Director at the FCA, recently acknowledged at our Long-Term Savings webinar.

As we begin to cautiously emerge from lockdown, it is highly unlikely we, our members and the wider economy, will ever simply return to the status quo ante, for a range of reasons. Most pressingly, firms are looking at how they can ensure employee safety as we return to large office blocks. If you work in one of the City’s skyscrapers, is it feasible getting 7,000 or so people into one building with 40 floors? Cost is also a major factor; many employers will be eying up their expensive office space and considering whether they need quite as much in the future. The slowdown in business travel and commuting has also been heralded as an opportunity to fast track our sustainability agenda. But perhaps most importantly, demand from employees has changed – many ABI members have told us that their employees want to work much more flexibly in the future.  

So as the impact of the crisis continues to unfold, the way people view work will continue to change, with perspectives on work changing in the boardroom and right through organisations. People and teams are working in a more flexible and agile way than ever before, and this could also bring more consideration of other forms of flexible working, such as job sharing.

Increasing flexible working, particularly job sharing, is a goal that the ABI has been focussed on as a means of addressing the gender imbalance at senior levels across the sector. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, ABI research indicated that there is still a gender seniority gap in insurance. In 2019 only a quarter of professionals at Executive and Board level were female. We also know from ABI data that an overwhelming majority of those who work part-time or flexibly are women, 89% and 63% respectively, and that people who work part time are less likely to progress.

The same is not true for people that job share. Job sharing allows individuals who need or want to work part time to continue progressing their careers. Nor is it just for women – job sharing offers benefits to a wide range of people, such as carers, people with portfolio careers and people who might otherwise retire, meaning it is another route for organisations to find the best talent. We are working closely with our members to increase the level of job sharing in the insurance and long-term savings industry.

It’s also important that, as Covid-19 restrictions ease, we manage the gradual return to office working and the improvements in flexible working as effectively and fairly as possible. In establishing the ‘new normal’, we need to ensure that there is a balance between men and women in the office. Women so often shoulder caring responsibilities, and this must not result in men returning to the office, while women continue to work flexibly from home. If women are on the Zoom calls, but not in the room when key decisions are made, they will miss out on the networking in the margins of discussions. This could also mean that they are less likely to get the exciting project or that promotion, missing out once again on opportunities for advancing their career.

Another hidden impact of the crisis is the gender pensions gap which is likely to widen further. Latest research shows that on average, men have a pension pot of around £235,000 by the time they retire. That’s more than double the retirement pot for women, who typically save around £100,000. Put simply, a woman in her 20s would need to save around £1,300 extra per year in order to close the gender pensions gap.

The pensions gender gap will continue to persist because women are overrepresented in low income groups - three quarters of those earning below the earnings threshold for automatic enrolment are women. But the impact of Covid-19 on pensions is likely to have a very long tail and may not be seen for years to come, as women have been disproportionately affected by job losses in retail and hospitality, and have shouldered the lion’s share of childcare responsibilities during lockdown, with the attendant consequences for their careers.

Possible solutions to address the pensions gender gap range from fixing pensions policy detail, such as the earnings threshold for auto-enrolment, and earlier interventions to improve women’s financial education and resilience to targeted interventions like the mid-life MOT. But ultimately, fixing the pensions gender gap needs much greater engagement by Government with how to distribute caring responsibilities more equally between men and women, and how to dismantle gender stereotypes driving career choices.

As we look to restart the economy by “building back better”, policymakers have a unique opportunity to create more flexible workplaces, not least through the Employment Bill. We must use the crisis as a catalyst to do things differently.  

The Women and Work APPG panel was chaired by the APPG’s co-Chair Laura Farris MP, and Yvonne was joined by Angela Ishmael, Senior Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, Diverse Matters and Michelle Gyimah, Gender Pay Gap Consultant, Equality Pays alongside Chair of the Women & Equalities Select Committee, Caroline Nokes MP. You can learn more about the work of the APPG here.

Last updated 15/07/2020