The fight for gender equality in the UK enters a defining era with the recent news that all-male boards had disappeared from the FTSE 350, which was an achievement for diversity, but the economic challenges posed by Covid-19 has put gender equality under scrutiny.
Research from City & Guilds (body for developing skills in trades) revealed that the Covid-19 fallout could threaten to set the clock back on progress made towards female empowerment and equality in the workplace.
Campaigners are calling on employers and the government to ensure gender equality does not fall behind by taking active steps such as flexible working policies.
Executive vice-chair of Mastercard, Ann Cairns, believes Covid-19 has put women in a more vulnerable position.
“Clearly the pandemic has led to a step back in the fight for diversity within business, as a crisis can always lead to the retreat of those who would otherwise strive to make a change in times of prosperity,” she said.
“I say differently, and will continue to work with Mastercard to use action rather than words to create more diverse businesses across the globe,” Cairns added. One in four women have experienced a fall in income over the past year, and more than half have seen their career and mental health deteriorate, according to Fidelity International (a company that provides investment management services).
As the firm puts it, the financial challenges of Covid-19 must not be a permanent blow for women and unwind years of progress. Alexandra Altinger, CEO of J O Hambro Capital Management, urged businesses to ensure the equality issue remains at the forefront.
She said: “Gender pay gap enforcement may have been delayed due to the pandemic, but the chickens will come home to roost before the year is out,” she said. “With the pandemic having huge consequences for women in the workforce, businesses will have to act fast to avoid action being taken by the equalities watchdog.”
Pandemic has somewhat dented female career confidence. New data from the Equal Power campaign, which is working to get more women into politics, showed that action on female representation is needed now more than ever.
The movement found that 74 per cent of women would be unlikely to stand as an MP, compared to 59 per cent before the pandemic.
Three-quarters of the women surveyed felt their diverse needs had rarely been represented in the UK during the crisis.
While the pandemic has shifted some attention away from social issues, finding new ways to maximise women’s access to professional development must remain a priority in every sector. Gender equality wins have been met by unprecedented hardship.
The UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has taken a major step in promoting gender equality by appointing five women in top new positions of chief operating officer, chief data information and intelligence officer, executive director of markets, executive director of authorisations and director of market oversight who will lead the FCA’s response to listings review for strengthening the UK’s capital markets.
These appointees will sit on the executive committee — the regulator’s most senior executive decision-making body. The moves come amid change at the regulator, which has committed to become a data-led regulator in order to be able to react more quickly and effectively to what is going on in financial markets.
FCA chief executive Nikhil Rathi said: “As we continue transforming the FCA – building a data-led regulator – their global experience and leadership, drawn from a variety of backgrounds, will be vital in ensuring we can act more quickly to reduce harm to consumers and ensure market integrity.” (The writer is our foreign correspondent based in the UK)