mother working from home on a laptop while daughter is studying

Tamara Gillan knows firsthand how hard it is to juggle it all. As founder and chief executive of marketing agency Cherry London and founder of the WealthiHer Network, aimed at empowering women, she's struggled to find a balance between work and life during the pandemic.

“One of the things we've seen through COVID, and I know as a mum and a female leader and entrepreneur … we've never been more challenged. Between children, my poor team, my poor company, I'm just so compromised, I think that balance is hard,” Gillan says.

In the early days of the pandemic, people searched for “silver linings'': the lockdowns meant more quality time with families and having nowhere to rush to. But it didn't take long for the data to present a starkly different reality playing out in homes across the UK and beyond: women were disappearing from the workforce, with decades of progress seemingly evaporating as the pandemic exposed the biases and inequity women face and accelerated the consequences of those problems. In the UK, the country's biggest lenders lost about 10,000 women in 2020, according to Bloomberg.

Around the world, some of the hardest-hit sectors, including the service industry, retail and hospitality, have also been disproportionately occupied by women. They are jobs where working from home is not an option. Women have been furloughed at a higher rate than men, women of colour have faced higher unemployment, and more women have had to leave their paid jobs for a different kind of unpaid work—that of caregiving.

“The burden of childcare, the burden of domesticity has fallen back to the woman. Women are trying to juggle more as a result,” says Annabel Bosman, head of Relationship Management with RBC Wealth Management in London.

In fact, women are working 156 more support hours in a month during lockdown than men, according to a report by WealthiHer, an organisation aimed at driving the economic advancement of women. And for every three hours of a man's uninterrupted work, women are only getting one hour.

In the UK, these upheavals also have a detrimental impact on women's pensions, widening an already startling divide, where women's pensions are just a third of men's at the same age. Even before the pandemic hit, Fawcett Society's chief executive said the gender pay gap was narrowing so slowly it would take 60 years to close it. A year after the world went into lockdown, The Independent declared it “the pandemic of inequality” and said it was setting back women's rights by decades.

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Women are driving change through pandemic

Despite these enormous pandemic-driven setbacks, it's also fuelled a fresh wave of female entrepreneurs who've started or plan to start their own businesses. While much of the existing systems and structures make it more challenging for women in business, it's not all bad news.

“The rise of women starting businesses from home—it's something we've seen in the last few years, but definitely in the last year has sped up, which is a real positive,” says Bosman.

“If we have the same amount of female entrepreneurs as male entrepreneurs, the impact that would have on global GDP is huge.”

The same WealthiHer report says women's wealth—along with their spending power—has been rising overall in recent years, driven by more education, more household equality, a longer lifespan, taking on leadership roles and more entrepreneurship.

But there's still much more work to be done, Gillan and Bosman say.

“Taking that childcare burden back out of the picture I think will be a huge step forward, notwithstanding, there are so many challenges around working parents and childcare,” says Bosman, adding she hopes the pandemic has shown how much work goes into running a home and taking care of children.

From a business perspective, implementing inclusive policy changes that better support women is an investment that can only bring positive returns, advocates say. This means providing transparency on the gender pay gap, creating policies that remove gender biases and assumptions about who will stay home and take care of the children. Having leaders set that example is important. This also means having a workplace culture that understands the need for flexibility—not just for women, but for men too—to share those caregiving responsibilities.

An RBC report on investing trends of the future says we're in the midst of a generational shift in how we work. It details the changes shaped by more people working from home, creating an opportunity for a corporate cultural “reset.”

Female entrepreneurs face funding challenges

One of the biggest obstacles for female entrepreneurs is funding. A mere one percent of UK funding went to start-ups led by women in 2020—even as women-owned more than 30 percent of UK businesses, according to WealthiHer.

Compounding the inequality is a system that makes access to additional funding even harder, with some programmes hinging on having previously secured funding.

Gillan cites research that demonstrates a bias in how investors framed questions differently for men and women entrepreneurs. Specifically, researchers reported in the Harvard Business Review that venture capitalists asked women “blocking” questions that centred around the potential for losses, whereas men were asked “promoting” questions that focused on the potential for gains. These questions “appeared to have substantial funding consequences for startups” the article says.

Making women aware of their funding options is also important. “They're not aware of all the options. They often don't think they'll succeed, so they don't engage. So it's changing that perception and also helping them to pitch,” says Gillan.

“One of the things we found is we don't always talk the language. A male founder might say, 'I'm going to be a unicorn in 10 years.' Whereas women will say, 'We'll do step one, then we'll do step two.'”

Enabling women to take control of their financial future

Providing educational resources to help foster that entrepreneurial spirit and increase financial literacy is essential to building greater financial confidence among women, advocates say, but it should start much earlier—during school, not after.

Women aren't risk-averse, they are risk-aware, says Gillan. “They want to know, they want to understand.”

In partnership with RBC, the WealthiHer Network aims to support and enable women through educational webinars on topics such as investment strategies and wealth planning.

”We know that financial autonomy is key to feeling good about yourself and having that self-esteem,” says Bosman.

Advocates say there are important elements that can help change corporate and funding environments for women and help fuel greater financial confidence. Examples include:

  • Making sure there are different voices around the leadership table
  • Ensuring the banking sector engages with female entrepreneurs
  • Encouraging women to invest in other women

Research from WealthiHer has found women often know more than they realise even though only 39 percent of them express an above-average level of financial confidence, compared with 57 percent of men.

“It's a confidence versus competence question,” says Bosman.

The ripple effects of COVID-19 have demonstrated the enormous obstacles women face, but also their resiliency and ability to overcome even the greatest of challenges. With the right tools and supports in place, women will be able to achieve so much more, Gillan and Bosman say.

“That intrinsic link between education, self-esteem and confidence—it's something we need to be very deliberate about targetting and help build,” Bosman says.