Has The Pandemic Changed Women’s Working Lives?

As an Associate Fellow at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, Kathryn Bishop has spent more than 20 years teaching strategy development to organisations and individuals. She is the Programme Director for Women Transforming Leadership – Oxford University’s first leadership programme for women – and has worked with women from all over the world as they make their career and development plans. Her new book, Make Your Own Map combines business strategic planning with career planning to help women develop resilient and aspirational career plans.

In this article Kathryn speaks exclusively to The Style Edit about how the pandemic has changed women’s working lives and what we can do to ensure, that in retrospect, these changes were for the better.

Has the pandemic changed women’s working lives?

Well, yes, obviously – of course it has.  It’s changed everyone’s working lives, at least temporarily. But the evidence suggests that it has particularly affected women.

Why? During the months of lockdown, many women found that they had to play all their various roles simultaneously. Many were employees working from home, while also working in new roles as a home-school teacher, and looking after family members and neighbours.  The pandemic has demonstrated yet again that the burden of caring tends to fall unevenly in a partnership or family.

But the effects have been varied.  Although some women report that they had more free time because they no longer needed to commute, many say that change simply resulted in a longer working day, with more time spent in front of the computer screen.  Some have enjoyed the flexibility of working remotely, but the pressure to be always available for messages and meetings while at home has worsened. We have always talked about the difficulty of establishing a work/life balance and many women report that this was much harder in 2020.

Looking ahead

There’s a second and more interesting answer to this question: “Yes, and there is more change to come”. As we go into 2021 (and what we all hope will be the final stages of the pandemic), the organisations which employ us will have to reinvent themselves again. We saw them do this in the first months of the crisis in 2020 – for example, some hotels became hostels and some pubs became retailers, initially to get rid of their stock but then some subsequently turned themselves into community-based businesses.

Now, there’s a medium-term challenge for them, as consumer behaviours alter, and economic pressures increase.  And these changes will affect us all, too, but once again, women in particular. A recent Deloitte survey of over 400 women cited the fact that 70% of those who felt they had been adversely affected by the pandemic also believe that this will subsequently affect their career progression. And, as the survey also notes, just over half of them believe that their male colleagues have not been affected to the same extent by the pandemic. In times of recession, women’s jobs are often more vulnerable, too – as the internet meme has it, it’s not so much a recession as a ‘she-cession’.

In times of recession, women’s jobs are often more vulnerable, too – as the internet meme has it, it’s not so much a recession as a ‘she-cession’.  

Taking a different perspective

Yet here’s the other important point:  many women report that they want to make some changes in their working lives. They don’t want to find themselves simply responding to the turbulence, but rather, to be making their own choices about what to change.  The months of lockdown gave them the chance to think about what matters most, and why they do what they do. For some, this has resulted in a desire to work for themselves, and for others a determination to negotiate with their employers to restructure their roles or their remuneration, or both. 

Taking an optimistic view for a moment, it is possible that the turbulence still to come might provide room for women to do just that – to redesign their working lives.  In the same Deloitte survey, around half of those surveyed said that they see potential to progress in the next year by taking on more responsibility. As organisations get to grips with remote working, alter products and services and perhaps even move their office locations, new jobs and opportunities will arise, as some disappear.  

Asking a different question

So as we look forward, there’s a different and more important question: how do I want my working life to change after the pandemic?”  Of course, we’ll have to respond to the changes still happening around us, but this may also be the moment to implement some of our own changes.  If you can answer this question, it will be easier to decide which opportunities to seize and which to ignore, whether to move jobs now, or stay where you are, or what to do if the worst happens and your current job disappears.  The trouble is that it’s a hard question to answer at the best of times, and these definitely aren’t those times.   

Formulating your strategy

The key thing in turbulent working conditions is to be able to navigate broadly in the right direction.  That’s true for the organisations we work for, and it’s true for us as individuals, too. Our employers will use strategy tools to plot their course through these new circumstances.

The good news is that those same strategy tools can be useful for us, too, as individuals.  If you have a strong sense of your skills and abilities – the stuff you are good at and like doing – that’s a good place to start.  Equally, if you know what’s not working right now, you can begin to develop a picture of what a better working future might look like for you. 

But because the future is so unsettled, this doesn’t seem like the time for a career plan, with a set of next steps carefully scheduled to help us to progress to the next level. That approach feels much too rigid. In times of rapid change, we need to be more opportunistic, open to the sudden possibilities that arise.  And that requires strategy – a sense of direction – so that you can choose the right opportunities for you, rather than simply taking whatever comes along.  So that you’ll be better able to respond when the post-pandemic world changes your working life again. 

So that when someone asks in 2025 whether the pandemic changed women’s lives, your answer might possibly be, “In my case, yes, and for the better.”

Kathryn’s new book Make Your Own Map: Career Success Strategy for Women is published on February 3, 2021 by Kogan Page. 

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