On 20 April 2021, Finnegan’s London office hosted a virtual brainstorming event for senior women in the IP profession looking at next steps as we head out of lockdown.
It is difficult to argue that the pandemic has been anything other than disastrous for most working women. Alongside increases in caring responsibilities, women have also suffered more from the remote working environment, reporting higher levels of anxiety and burnout. New research from the University of Stanford even suggests that “Zoom fatigue” is worse for women than men (see here).
As a result, we are experiencing a so-called “she-cession” - a recession that disproportionately affects women. One study in the US by the National Women’s Law Center has found that 2.3 million women have left the workforce during the pandemic, compared with 1.8 million men. A study in the UK by the Women’s Budget Group found that, by June 2020 - barely 3 months into lockdown - only 48% of working women were still working full time hours. These figures suggest that gender equality has been set back by at least a decade by the pandemic.
The focus of our discussion was therefore how to move forward out of lockdown in a way that best supports the women in our teams, and we pondered the following questions:
There was unanimous agreement that going back to the “old ways” will no longer be possible and that therefore new ways of working needed to be found. Indeed, one breakout room noted that companies should be encouraged to find new ways of working for the benefit of their employees.
Prior to the pandemic, it was a common complaint that flexible working was only available for senior positions. However, since the pandemic has shown that working from home can be just as efficient as working from the office, it is hoped that requests from all colleagues for greater flexibility will be met positively going forwards.
While home working is likely to continue, it was noted that managers should help to set boundaries for employees to help them to maintain a work/life balance. This may be achieved by, for example, not emailing employees or scheduling meetings outside of normal working hours.
The move to virtual formats has been welcomed by many people, allowing attendance at events without the need for travel. As we transition back to our offices, there is concern that these events will go back to being “in person only”, which could again exclude anyone who struggles to find additional time in their day for travel. Similarly, while everyone is remote, virtual meetings are the norm. However, there is concern that as some people head back into their offices and in person meetings start to take over, home working colleagues may get left behind. The group was split, however, on the best way forward. Some felt that one forum should be chosen to ensure a level playing field. For example, all attendees must attend virtually, irrespective of location. Others felt that hybrid events should be encouraged, with options for both virtual and in person attendance.
It was noted that before the pandemic the feedback women received in the workplace was often less actionable than the feedback received by male counterparts. For example, a typical survey of feedback received by employees found that men were advised to develop confidence in a specific skill/area, whilst women were told to be generically more confident. This issue has been compounded by difficulties providing virtual feedback, leading to a “double whammy” on female staff and especially female trainees. It was noted that giving feedback can be more difficult in a virtual format, as body language clues can be harder to read. Additional training for managers in giving virtual feedback is therefore encouraged.
As we head out of lockdown, it is clear that there is no “one size fits all” solution, and each company and team will need to find their own path. We remain hopeful, however, that the experience of lockdown has proved that new ways of working can be accommodated, maximising accessibility for all colleagues.
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