An Impossible Choice
Julie Linn Teigland, EY EMEIA Area Managing Partner and EY Global Leader – Women. Fast forward
The pandemic has been incredibly hard on women, harder than most people would choose to acknowledge.
Until March 2020, achieving gender equality was being recognised as a key issue for firms across the working world, where it offered companies the opportunity to achieve better performance through greater diversity.
However since the pandemic the role of women has taken a giant step backwards. The United Nations predict it will take a decade to reverse the economic impacts this pandemic has had on women, including the effect on equal pay, which has been eroded to levels not seen since the financial crisis of 2008.
At the same time, we have witnessed the cancellation of nursery services, childcare centres, schools, infrastructure, community programmes and care for the elderly.
Who is left to fill the gap? Perhaps not exclusively, but usually – it’s women.
Based on our own in-house research, EY estimate women are doing three to four times the number of hours of unpaid work than their male counterparts. This has combined to increase the pressure on women who face impossible choices as a result.
For those with financial means, this has meant covering the cost of care and managing their ability to work remotely. But for many millions of others, there is no alternative and the challenges are extensive. Women from across all sectors of the economy have been left at home with children and no place to go, while still endeavouring to manage a fulltime job.
Without the ability to take unpaid leave or a vacation, most have juggled work and home life, trying to do remote working while managing the household at the same time with consequent impacts on their private life and their own mental wellbeing. An increasing number have been forced to make the sacrifice of reverting from their professional lives to become full-time mums.
As we emerge from the pandemic, more must be done to address this issue if the current crisis is to provide an opportunity for the world to leapfrog ahead. At the same time, the battle to achieve gender equality from a legal perspective and for firms to report on equal pay will be fundamental, and employers will need to step up and ensure they are not part of the group that falls back by 10 years.
“Who is left to fill the gap? Perhaps not exclusively, but usually – it’s women.”
In this new world, companies are increasingly recognising the need to wake up to the signs of stress and difficulty among their employees. At EY, we’ve responded by putting programmes in place which encourage people to check in on each other. Every employee is allocated a counsellor and a counselling family - a small team that gets together regularly - and each partner has an opportunity to interact with the people on their team, providing them with a chance to communicate, and an opportunity for open discussion.
This means there is an outlet for people to discuss their problems, to talk to a counsellor to find a solution, or be guided to professional support wherever it is necessary. We also have a regular Women's Business Network that reaches thousands of women across the practice to allow them to exchange best practices and talk about the challenges they face.
Technology has been one of the winners of the past year because it has allowed organisations to seamlessly connect, but it is also a double-edged sword. It has deprived people of the interactions and the daily human contact they expect and given others the impression that the working day is never-ending and that they must be available all the time.
The result needs to be an altered the relationship between employers and employees. There is a greater expectation of trust, with an acknowledgement that a question about someone’s wellbeing will get an honest answer as opposed to “I’m ok”, or “I’m fine.”
There is also an expectation that if you are not ‘ok’, you should be able to ask for help, or get help, and that expectation is on both sides.
It may be that is a revolutionary change: that companies now recognise they have obligation and a fiduciary duty to ensure the mental wellbeing of their staff and this new understanding both builds and requires trust.