The impact of Covid-19 on gender equality at work

The current pandemic is set to vastly shape both ways of working and people management

By Dr Emily Yarrow, MSc Global Human Resource Management Module Leader

The huge shift to working from home during the pandemic presents both new and distinctive opportunities and challenges for global HR managers, and is set to change the way in which we think about equality and accessibility in the contemporary workplace. We are in an epoch of significant change that is shaping the future of work immeasurably.

The importance of external, contextual changes on organisational behaviour and in turn, HR practice/s cannot be underestimated (Johns, 2006), as we are currently in a period of not only vast change, but adaptation, in some instances also resistance.

The current context may be defined as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), learnings from which need to be harnessed by organisations in order to move forward sustainably.

Organisations will need to develop potentially new forms of competitive advantage through their most important assets - people and their engagement in the organisations’ aims and objectives.

'The new normal'

The current pandemic is set to vastly shape both ways of working and people management, oftentimes being referred to as ‘the new normal’, with organisations not only planning post-Covid-19 recovery, but also thinking about opportunities that are arising.

However, it is also imperative to think about the implications for ensuring that organisations develop and build upon their inclusivity, with a focus on women whom have been disproportionately burdened during the Covid-19 pandemic, but also thinking what can be learned from highly digitised and home working from wider inclusion of women, disabled people and marginalised people more broadly.

There is much [organisational] learning which can be made from the 2008 financial crisis (Richards and Sang, 2019), but it is argued here that the Covid-19 pandemic provides unique challenges as well as opportunities.

It is and indeed will be increasingly critical for both organisations and HR practitioners to actively embrace change in order to be not only strategically agile and competitive, but also inclusive.

Covid-19 is deepening existing inequalities

Gender inequality in organisations across sectors is of course a well-documented, but also deeply engrained and problematic issue.

Unfortunately the Covid-19 pandemic serves to further deepen and entrench existing inequalities such as the gender pay gap, vulnerability to redundancy, inequitable caring responsibilities, as well as vertical gender segregation.

For example, recent research has found that ‘Just under half (46 per cent) of mothers made redundant or expecting to be made redundant during the Covid-19 crisis say lack of childcare provision played a role’ (Howlett, 2020).

Women remain disproportionately underrepresented in the upper echelons of many organisations, and indeed Britain’s largest employer, the NHS, (Statista, 2020) which employs around 1 million women, still has a gender pay gap.

Women are also ‘more likely than men to face structural constraints within the workplace, less likely to get promoted and less likely to be represented in senior roles within the NHS’ (NHS Employers, 2020).

Currently, at the time of writing in February 2021, we are on the cusp of an economic gender regressive scenario that holds the potential to contribute also to further losses of GDP associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. McKinsey’s Gender Parity Score (GPS) for example, asserts that advancing women’s equality can contribute $12 trillion to global growth (McKinsey, 2015), thereby providing much scope for action and new opportunities for and from organisations as well as global HR managers, regardless of sector.

Women need to be included in new ways of working

Nonetheless, reductions in GDP should not be the reason why organisations need to proactively work to ensure that women and other marginalised people are included in new ways of working. Rather, there is a risk that any progress that has been made may regress and that social justice stands to be further harmed.

We are at a tipping point, in terms of women’s leadership of nations and organisations, thus presenting new opportunities for a more inclusive and diverse leadership and HR management landscape.

Innovative, inclusive, and agile global HR practices and processes, delivered with kindness and flexibility, will be integral in the success of contemporary organisations.

Dr Emily Yarrow is a Module Leader for the University of Portsmouth's part-time, online MSc in Global Human Resource Management. You can start in January, May or September:

Explore the course 

Follow Dr Yarrow on Twitter: @Emilyyarrow1


Howlett, E., (2020) Half of mums made redundant during Covid-19 cite lack of childcare, study reveals. Source: (retrieved: 01/03/2021).

Johns, G., (2006). The essential impact of context on organizational behavior. Academy of management review, 31(2), 386-408.

McKinsey and Company., (2015) The Power of parity: how advancing women’s equality can add $12trillion to global growth. Source: (Retrieved: 25/02/2021)

NHS Employers., (2020) Gender equality in the NHS. Source: (Retrieved 01/03/2020)

Richards, J., & Sang, K., (2019). The intersection of disability and in-work poverty in an advanced industrial nation: The lived experience of multiple disadvantage in a post-financial crisis UK. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 40(3), 636-659. 

Statista., (2020) ‘Number of public sector employees in the United Kingdom as of 3rd quarter 2020, by industry’ Source: (retrieved: 01/03/2021).

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