It is coming up to a year since our lives were first turned upside-down by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have travelled a dark road and our thoughts are with the families of those taken before their time.
Now, finally, there is light ahead. The astonishing pace of the vaccine rollout – with tens of millions of doses now administered – has held up the real and tantalising possibility of the ending of restrictions by summer.
This month we are hosting our International Women’s Day (IWD) event, an annual celebration that this year takes on an extra edge because of the pandemic. IWD is always an opportunity to mark the progress we have made and acknowledge how far we still need to travel.
There is, I think, an underlying understanding that we are on an ever-upward trajectory of enlightenment and that huge progress has been made, and continues to be made, in the arena of gender equality. But perhaps there is less recognition that change doesn’t happen on its own. We have to make things happen. And that is still harder than it needs to be.
What COVID-19 has exposed is how the way our society and our businesses are structured and run, still puts women at a disadvantage. For all their progress in business and in the workplace, in the main women remain the primary carers of both children and of elderly and vulnerable family members.
Lockdowns created greater care burdens and it was women who shouldered the bulk of that. On average, mothers spend 10 hours a day looking after their children, two hours more than fathers. Mothers are 47% more likely to have lost or quit their job since the lockdowns began. Incidences of domestic violence have, sadly, rocketed.
Almost 20% of women work in sectors that have suffered job losses and earnings cuts, compared to 13% of men. One of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s support packages during the pandemic was the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS).
It was designed to support the UK’s 5m-strong army of self-employed workers. Grants were based on average profits made between 2016 and 2019. But an estimated 75,000 self-employed women took maternity leave in that time and so their grants were partly based on maternity pay, typically much lower than their earnings.
SEISS wasn’t deliberately designed to discriminate against mothers, but there is an unconscious bias that still exists in Government and in our institutions that simply doesn’t consider the impact of policy on women.
Another example is the push to get computers into low income homes to help with home schooling. That has been great but that is only part of the solution. Access to fast broadband also costs money.
Digital connectivity is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Mothers should not have to choose between buying food and paying for an internet connection. There has been a big increase in the number of mothers claiming in-work Universal Credit and people are suffering real hardship.
There is this idea, almost a tradition, that women’s strength and resourcefulness will so often shine through in challenging times. It does, and it has, particularly during the pandemic. We roll up our sleeves and ‘get on with it’. We can celebrate that, but we also need to acknowledge the inherent unfairness that exists, and we need to keep pushing to bring about change.
The theme of IWD this year is #CHOOSETOCHALLENGE and that is indeed what we need to carry on doing. As we emerge from the pandemic, I think we have to start reflecting on the lessons learned and how we want to move forward.
One year on from our last ‘in person’ Knowsley Women in Business (WiB) event at Knowsley Hall, almost 100 women will come together online to celebrate IWD this month. The turnout for our previous WiB online event in January was amazing and this month we hear from two great speakers – Kim Healey from Everton Football Club and Vicky Jaycock from Liverpool Football Club.
We also looking to document the experience of the female members of Knowsley Chamber during the pandemic. They come from a diverse range of businesses sectors. We have asked them each to provide 100 words and it is sure to provide an invaluable insight into the challenges of the past 12 months.
Our wider message to businesses in the borough is also to ask them to reflect on the events of the past year and to think carefully about how we move forward in the recovery. It is hugely encouraging that we are already seeing signs of transformation. Businesses are actively looking beyond just commercial considerations.
They are looking at their business models, their work practices, and seeing how they can put equality and inclusiveness at the heart of their organisations and how they can utilise digital technology to manage that change.
During the pandemic is was fantastic to see the emergence of positive female role models. This has been particularly true where teams of people across the world have worked together to produce COVID-19 vaccines in an astonishingly short space of time.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine project was led by Professor Sarah Gilbert, a world-leading vaccinologist. Role models are so important for women and girls. I would love to imagine that Professor Gilbert will inspire a whole new generation of female scientists. When girls and young women are mentored by someone who has made their mark, it can make a tremendous difference.
I love the #CHOOSETOCHALLENGE theme. My own motto in life is ‘if nothing changes, nothing changes’. I have faced my own personal challenges and the most valuable lesson that I have learned is that if I wanted to bring about change then I had to change myself first. And we have to be ready for change.
As women, we need to remember that we have a voice, both as individuals and as a collective. And we cannot sit back and wait for change to happen. We have to use our voices to bring about change. We owe that to ourselves and that generations that will come after us.