Business

Paul McErlean: Parity is powerful - but it needs to move forward

Seeing students go back to school this week gives a feeling of normality after the upheaval of the last 18 months

ONE of the things it's been great to see over the last week is kids in their uniforms going back to school. The feeling of normality is a good thing after all the upheaval of the last 18 months.

Our last full day in the office was March 16 2020, and the watchword in the professional services world since then has been flexibility: in terms of location and work practices in all their many forms.

In our small business, we thought we were going back to the office properly last summer. It didn’t happen. Again, we think we’re going back to normal soon this year, but nothing is guaranteed and what does normal look like now anyway?

Are we all going back to the office full-time? Is the office as crucial as it once was, as a place of work? And what does the interior of an office look like post-pandemic? What sort of facilities should it have? As our 10-year lease comes to an end next year, these are the questions we as a business are asking ourselves, particularly when occupation costs are the next largest cost after the wage bill.

While employers are having to be ever more flexible to accommodate the needs and requirements of their staff, the labour market is shifting also. Never has there been a more fluid approach to employment than over these last 18 months.

According to a recent article in Wired magazine, job vacancies reached an all-time high in the UK in July past, with over one million posts being available. In the US, again according to Wired, four million people left their employment this April alone, the highest in 20 years. This was followed by a record 10 million jobs being available by the end of June.

A recent study from Microsoft has found that 41 per cent of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year. It has very definitely become an employees’ market. Which is hard to understand given the caution and fear generated by the pandemic, in addition to the eye-watering levels of government debt which has been accumulated. Where we might have expected caution and conservatism from staff, the opposite seems to have become the case.

The bounce back in the economy has surprised me no end, and it seems there are jobs galore available. One UK jobs site, Reed.co.uk, has had its highest number of monthly job postings since 2008. In August, over 250,000 roles went live on the site and opportunities advertising remote work have grown more than four-fold compared to before the pandemic. Intense job growth alongside the flexibility of remote work, now means that white-collar workers have more choice probably than ever before.

While all that makes it sound as if everything is rosy in the garden, millions of jobs have been lost also. And when you look at the statistics, there is a shocking gender difference in those trends. In analysis from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) it is shown that women’s jobs have been 1.8 times more vulnerable in the pandemic than men’s jobs. According to the HBR, women make up 39 per cent of global employment but accounted for 54 per cent of overall job losses up to May last year.

This backwards move is not just a blow to women and societal progress but also to the economy and business. According to the HBR, if no action is taken to counter this level of regression, then global GDP could be $1 trillion (that’s one thousand billion) lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector.

On the other hand, taking remedial action to improve gender equality now and into the future could add $13 trillion to global GDP by 2030, according to the HBR. That’s a big difference and one of those things which would be great for society and the economy. The HBR says that reversing the trend will require investment in things like education, family planning, maternal mortality prevention, digital inclusion, and unpaid care work.

That’s expensive for governments, employers, individuals, and families but the HBR estimates that the economic benefits of narrowing gender gaps are six to eight times higher than the social spending required. That’s a serious multiple. And of course, it’s also the right thing to do. You only have to think of the regression taking place in Afghanistan to remind yourself of what’s best to do here. The fact that it makes good business sense also might help convince the doubters (and the chauvinists).

There can be no doubt that during the pandemic, women have borne the brunt of the economic impact at least in part explained by the burden of unpaid care; the demands of which have grown substantially during the pandemic. This, according to the HBR, has been a key factor in why a disproportionate number of women have come out of the workforce in comparison to men, during the pandemic.

So, with a new school term starting, a new opportunity in business arises too, driven by need perhaps with more and more pressure in the jobs market but with serious societal and economic upside too.

Flexibility in how we approach the delivery of our work and how we share unpaid care, while ensuring proper investment is made in training and benefits, can help to redress inequalities and drive revenues. Nobody loses in that environment. As the HBR concludes: ‘Parity is powerful. It needs to move forward.’

:: Paul McErlean (paul@mcepublicrelations.com) is managing director and founder of MCE Public Relations

:: Next week: Richard Ramsey

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