January is normally a time for renewal and New Year resolutions – but just as 2020 left us with a year like no other, 2021 stretches before us already promising another form of new normal.  COVID-19 is still with us.  The vaccine roll-out programme is underway. Cautious notes of optimism, but no return to life as we knew it only 12 months ago.

Equate Scotland’s COVID-19 Survey highlighted, while some things have drastically changed for the better in terms of securing homeworking, unfortunately, some things, have also become even more challenging. Yes, I am talking about childcare and caring.

Mass migration to home working busted many myths – but sadly has failed many women as the means to balancing life and work in lockdown. When targets and productivity are still the daily drumbeat topped up by homeschooling and care responsibilities, the impact on health and well-being is an increasing cause for concern.

Flexible and affordable childcare has long been seen as an enabler to breaking down the barriers of traditional labour market segregation and women’s equal participation in it.  And it still is.  But it is also clear that wider societal attitude, change and leadership is needed if we are to truly, fully unlock that potential.

For a stark reminder look no further than last week.  Nichola Salvato, a single parent, brought a legal challenge against the DWP over its “ridiculous” universal credit childcare payments system which required her to pay hundreds of pounds upfront to childcare providers before she could claim the money through universal credit.  This plunged her into debt and forced her to reduce her working hours.  She won her case. DWP were judged to have been discriminatory and unlawful. But guess what, the DWP have now appealed.

McKinsey’s October 2020 Survey (USA) on the impact of COVID-19 on women highlights the “always on” environment of homeworking and that the supports of school and childcare have gone.  Worryingly it goes on to say that 1:4 women are now considering downshifting their career or leaving it entirely.  While this is a US study, similar studies on the impact of COVID-19 on women in the UK reflects the same issues.

But back to January – renewal and new year resolutions.

Renewal of industry and our economy is already the focus of many employers and, governments with taskforces and action plans emerging on a daily basis. The push for STEM skills is evident in so many of these plans and presents the opportunity, if it is taken, to make significant inroads to changing women’s labour market segregation, including in STEM. These plans all highlight in some shape or form their commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion and addressing gender imbalance in the workplace. But will it happen?

I always see a New Year is a time for renewal.  If 2021 can deliver us anything I hope it is that we take this opportunity to reset from where we are now – and not where we were at the start of 2020.

The tragic daily death toll from COVID-19 shocks us all and continues to touch our lives every day.  In 2020 we also showed how caring and supportive society can be, going into 2021 we will need that caring and supportive mindset to help us all get through this in the long term.

Despite the challenges we should recognise that breaking the barrier of home working is a significant societal and workplace change. There is no going back.  But if we are to move forward positively then this crisis presents an opportunity to build on that fresh perspective in terms of life and work.

It will require governments and companies to follow through on what they say in their recovery plans because if they do that is our best hope to finally, profoundly move the dial.   Investing in building more inclusive, diverse and flexible workplaces that will see us all being able to contribute to our full potential. Because when we come out of this pandemic, we will need all our talents. Not less.