Last March, like more than half the UK’s workers, I left the office to work from home. As I settled in, my daughter, a musician, watched in alarm as cancellations came in one by one from the restaurants, bars and hotels where she plays. The brewery my husband is part of stopped production as the pubs closed their doors.
Work has changed for all of us: 1.7 million have lost their jobs – with part-time jobs hit hard. At its peak more than 1 in 4 workers were furloughed.
Where we worked changed too: Some, like me, worked from home, others in an alien workplace where masks, hand sanitiser and ‘bubbles’ replaced coffee and meetings as the norm while frontline workers were (are) exposed to the trauma and exhaustion of dealing with the virus head on. And then, schools closed.
The pandemic worsens workplace inequities
COVID-19 has affected every single aspect of our working lives. And this complex pattern was overlaid on to the already unequal workplace having a devasting effect on the most underrepresented groups.
- Young people: Those about to enter the workplace have seen their education interrupted, their exams cancelled and been isolated from their friends, spending much of the last year with little or no social interaction outside their families. Young people under the age of 25 who are working are about two and a half times as likely to work in a sector that is now shut down as other employees[i]. Of all age groups, they’re the most likely to have been made unemployed and furloughed.
- Lower-income workers. The largest economic impact of the pandemic has been on the lowest paid. Hospitality, leisure and retail have a higher share of lower paid jobs than other sectors. These employees also work in jobs that can’t easily be done remotely.
- Disabled workers: People with disabilities are among the most disadvantaged employees in the UK; almost half were not in paid employment even before COVID-19 and estimates suggest around 1 in 4 are facing redundancy. Again, they are more likely to be working in sectors that shutdowns have heavily impacted. They are more likely to hold part-time roles and less likely to work in roles that can be carried out from home[ii].
- Ethnic Minority Employees: For many ethnic minority groups, the unequal impact of COVID-19 has affected both their health and employment. The mortality rate for people of Black African or Black Caribbean ethnicity was two to two and a half times higher than for people of White ethnicity.
Why? Partly because of where they work. Data from the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows the concentration of different ethnic minority groups in different industries, illustrating that among men, 11 out of 17 occupations found to have higher death rates involving COVID-19 have significantly higher proportions of workers from Black and Asian ethnic backgrounds. Historic patterns of employment have put ethnic minority employees on the front line.
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The largest economic impact of the pandemic has been on the lowest paid
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In terms of unemployment, employees from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds were among the most likely groups to lose their jobs after having been furloughed. Of those furloughed 22% fell out of work. That was significantly higher than the 9% of all furloughed adults who were no longer working by September.
Women and mothers: In this crisis, women have been impacted in almost every way.
They are more likely to work in shutdown sectors, to be laid off and to be furloughed.
They are more likely to work part time (where more jobs have been lost) or in the informal sector, where there’s little financial security.
20% of all jobs held by women are in the care and health industry – taking them to the front line.
Taking a greater share of the childcare responsibilities, mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to have either lost their job or quit or to have been furloughed.
The impact on women is huge — in his article, my colleague Dominic King described our work for the Women’s 20 last year where we estimated that gender equality could be set back by more than 50 years by the pandemic.
Four ways to rebuild a fairer workplace post-pandemic
Through this pandemic UK businesses have shown what they can do; pivoting from office to home working; shifting production from luxury clothing to medical gowns; dealing with Christmas supermarket volumes day after day. Now we need to direct this energy, this agility, this force for good to build fairer workplaces. How? Here are four ways we can start.
- Inclusive decision making: Ensure decisions reflect all interests and voices. Set and publish diversity targets for all levels of your business. If leadership teams are not yet diverse, find ways to include the missing voices through reverse mentoring and advisory groups.
- Inclusive workplaces: Over and again, our research has shown that a more inclusive culture unlocks the potential of underrepresented groups; in the most inclusive organisations women are four times more likely to advance, LGBTQ employees are three times more likely.
- Inclusive talent sourcing: In our research with Harvard Business School we have been looking at how organisations can better tap into underrepresented workers. It means challenging the way you define roles and source talent, looking for inbuilt bias that might be doing something you don’t need – or mean – it too. An algorithm that screens out those with a year’s gap on their CV could mean mothers who left the workforce last March don’t get reemployed.
- Inclusive digital world: Whether it’s digital literacy, access to the internet or being equipped with skills that will be in demand as new types of jobs replace traditional ones, we need to ensure no one is left behind. Upskilling those impacted by the pandemic will help them boost their employability as the economy recovers.
[i] Institute for Fiscal Studies and Starting out in work IFS
[ii] House of Commons Library briefing on people with disabilities and employment – August 2020