“How’s your pandemic been?” As we gradually emerge from lockdowns, this is a question we’re likely to hear a lot more often. The answer will no doubt vary from “hard” to “hell”.
No one has been spared the impact of Covid-19, be it physical, mental or financial. For me, it hasn’t been that bad. Don’t get me wrong. Being locked down with a four-year-old and two-year old, 24 hours a day, was relentless. But I’ve managed because — unlike many others — I’ve had a lot of support.
My husband, placed on furlough, shared the household chores and childcare while my employer embraced new ways of working (even delivering my old office chair to my front door) and demonstrating tolerance when I or any of my colleagues needed to sooth a howling toddler or deal with a stroppy teenager.
The real godsend was my 24-year-old stepdaughter, who arrived two years ago from Australia on a much-anticipated gap year. She helped with everything from watering the new vegetable patch to home schooling — though her dreams of travel, music festivals and making new friends were sadly extinguished.
The pandemic came with a price for everyone, notably the young and ethnic minority groups. But it is by now well established that women paid a particularly high price. Many lost or quit their jobs, with Covid-19 crystallising the so-called “motherhood penalty”, the opportunity cost that having a baby has on your pay and prospects. It also underlined the “good daughter” penalty — the fact that daughters are still far more likely than sons to care for a sick or elderly relative.
The past 15 months have seen women giving up work, working less or losing productivity. Meanwhile, research shows men have been promoted at three times the rate of women.
Women tend to dominate employment in the service-based sector. This sector is typically less volatile during recessions or downturns but Covid-19 turned “typical” on its head, which brings me back to my stepdaughter. As a trained hairdresser, she found a job at a local hair salon soon after arriving in the UK. Hair salons tend to be recession-proof — even if the economy is wobbling, people still need haircuts. But this time, no one was having a haircut. My stepdaughter, along with many other women in the sector, was placed on furlough.
Women are more likely to work in those industries that require face-to-face interaction — think retail, hospitality, travel, airlines, self-care and education. From receptionists to air hostesses, it’s work that cannot be done from home. Now consider the fact that the UK is a service-based economy, with 80 per cent of its output coming from this sector.
It is not just a UK issue. The economic and domestic turmoil of the pandemic could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality, according to United Nations data. And in the latest global women and money report, Fidelity International looked at the experiences and views of women internationally, across six markets in the UK, Europe and Asia. It found 31 per cent of women had seen a drop in their ability to save in the past 12 months, compared with 26 per cent of men.
The fallout will reverberate long into the future. If anything, the pandemic has taught us to plan for uncertainty, and our personal finances are a good starting point. But it’s also taught us that uncertainty cannot be allowed to jeopardise equality.
Industry and government need to work together to address gender pay, pension and investment gaps, now more than ever. Women need to embrace investing and move from the misplaced “safety” of merely saving as inflation rises.
The Fidelity report also posed the question “Are you an investor?” and found that only a third (33 per cent) of women see themselves as one. The sense that investment was a man’s terrain was true in every surveyed market bar China, where 60 per cent of women see themselves as investors — slightly more than the 58 per cent of men.
Among the factors behind this is the tendency in China for families to educate daughters about gender equality, the rise of women in the labour market and the increased educational level of women. One upside of China’s controversial one-child policy was that it opened up big educational opportunities for girls. Parents invested in the education of their only child, regardless of gender.
Beyond the lessons in opportunity, education and equality, there’s an investment takeaway in all of this — and it lies in the “S” of ESG. The social side of environmental, social and governance investing is the hardest to define and quantify, but in a post-Covid world, it is increasingly important.
Companies are under mounting pressure to take greater accountability not only for the welfare of their workforce, but for the community at large, and for the individuals in their often complex supply chains. Issues range from how companies approach redundancy (think JD Wetherspoon and British Airways) to race and inclusion (Black Lives Matter) and gender parity in the workforce, from closing the pay gap to promoting more women to senior levels.
As well as better run companies and more sustainable investments, there is another silver lining for women in spite of the devastating aftermath of the virus. The pandemic has made remote working normal. The concept is now well and truly road-tested. That’s good news for women, who tend to choose jobs that fit around their children, or elderly relatives, with more manageable hours and shorter commutes. Doing this under a new world order should mean women no longer face those societal penalties.
The other good news is that after months of home schooling her four-year-old sister, my stepdaughter has found her true vocation. She’s returning to Australia and will be studying to become a teacher.