I started February with optimism.  The days are getting lighter, vaccine rollout is making progress to a time when we can once again meet our family, friends and colleagues face to face. Lockdowns will be eased, and some new sense of normalcy will emerge

February has also, unfortunately, brought a raft of reports assessing the impact of the economy, and in particular the impact of COVID-19 on women.  And frankly none of it is good.

As the recently published report by the UK Parliamentary Equalities Committee shows there is a lot to be concerned about.   Not least, the very clear criticism of the UK government ministers responsible for Equalities. The bottom line is that the report says that the UK risked turning back the clock on gender equality.  You can read the full report here: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmwomeq/385/385.pdf

Since the report was published a raft of equality organisations including Amnesty International, the  Fawcett Society, and TUC have waded into the debate accusing the government of taking decisions that are deepening inequalities and urging the EHRC (Equalities Human Rights Commission) to investigate the government in its duty to consider the impact of key policies on women and other groups protected under the Equality Act.

Anna Whitehouse, from the campaign group Mother Pukka goes so far as to say “the Equality Act has somehow been swept of the table”.  She says that “Women are being forced out of the economy as the government watches on, seemingly nonplussed by the fact that we are going to wake up in 1951.”  And it is not just in the UK that this shocking concern is being raised.   UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres raises concerns that “COVID-19 could reverse the limited but important progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights.”

From a women in STEM perspective, this should be the start of a time when we are laying the foundations of positivity and optimism.   Economic forecasts are heralding green recoveries, building back better, investment in climate change measures, green deals and emerging strategies on AI and data.  But as our survey last year demonstrated – while the barrier of home working has been climbed – there will not be too many reaching the summit unless there are significant changes in the provision of affordable, and accessible childcare.  Throughout this period research shows that unless the division of labour on child care and domestic duties is better balanced then working from home brings a whole new meaning to flexible working.  Given the estimated 60% of cooking, cleaning and schooling – in addition to working – that women are still doing we’ve taken multi-tasking to a whole new level.

Equate Scotland want to ensure women get a fair crack at these emerging opportunities and that is why I am optimistic as a result of our recent partnerships with DataLab and CodeClan.  The potential for opening up training and development to women returners and career changers, to embrace these new emerging industry opportunities must be part of any build back better model.  Similarly positive is our pilot with Fife College and Fife Council as part of the Edinburgh Region City Deal to get women returners in to data science.

Each of these programmes was over-subscribed. But if we are serious about opening up the playing field for women in these areas then a more strategic, structured and targeting of funding is needed to make it happen effectively.  It needs employers and educators aligned from the outset on workforce modelling, skill gaps, including reskilling and retraining.  A whole pipeline approach from apprenticeships, including mature apprenticeships, broader reskilling and retraining of women most impacted by the collapse of sectors such as retail and hospitality, as well as alignment of curriculum to skill needs through further and higher education.  Now is the time to take stock of what is, and isn’t working and why, despite all the focus and investment we are still, as the RSE (Royal Society of Edinburgh) report reflects still not really Tapping All Our Talents.  If we are serious about tackling this long-standing issue the opportunity is there to be seized. Will we take it?  Will our COVID-19 recovery build back better by levelling the playing field – or just a better playing field for those that were already on the pitch.