A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

Covid lessons cast light on agile working and women’s careers

The 30% Club sees lockdowns as having removed stigma from working from home

Global data from UN Women points to the fact that, pre-pandemic, it was estimated women were doing three-quarters of the 16 billion hours of unpaid work done each day around the world.

Global data from UN Women points to the fact that, pre-pandemic, it was estimated women were doing three-quarters of the 16 billion hours of unpaid work done each day around the world.


Gillian Harford is the country executive for the 30% Club in Ireland. Founded in 2010 in the UK, it is a campaign group of business chairpersons and chief executive directors taking action to increase gender diversity on boards and senior management teams. Its goal is to increase to 30 per cent female gender representation of publicly listed companies. It came to Ireland in 2015 and while the aim is the same, the focus is broader and includes companies with 250 employees and more.

It is a voluntary organisation.

Harford is semi-retired, having worked in HR for one of the pillar banks, and now runs her own consultancy group in addition to volunteering with the 30% Club. Here in Ireland, it is supported by 280 organisations which accounts for more than 600,000 people.

The movement has been one of the original drivers behind the Better Balance for Business, now supported by the Government, and runs educational scholarships for women across all Irish universities.

“We support ‘born ready’ programmes, ‘women in leadership’ programmes but mostly we look at taking away the barriers to progression as opposed to changing women,” says Harford.

Wherever possible, the organisation looks to conduct local research and support learnings in the area of gender and work balance. This is very important in particular when coming to look at the data emerging from gender impacts of Covid.

At the end of last year, a range of surveys and reports emerged with apparently devastating news that the coronavirus pandemic could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality. Global data from UN Women pointed to the fact that pre pandemic, it was estimated women were doing three-quarters of the 16 billion hours of unpaid work that are done each day around the world. The organisation said this figure was getting worse.

Distinct timelines

In the face of such dispiriting news, it is good to get a counterbalance that comes as we go into our second year of Covid. Harford explains that we need to divide the stages of Covid to get more accurate understandings.

“It is very important to get local research as sometimes overseas data does not correlate to the Irish experience, but it is vital to really examine the data emerging from Covid as some of it is artificial.”

The 30% Club divides research into four distinct timelines over the lockdown. The first is pre-Covid, the second is the full lockdown when schools were closed, the third related to the continued lockdown but with the schools open, and the final piece is post-lockdown.

Most of the research published to date focuses on the extreme second part of lockdown when everything revolved around being at home. The media focused on the additional responsibilities for women, in particular parents, at this time where most of the home schooling was indeed taken up by women.

“Pre-Covid women took on 40 per cent more childcare and 30 per cent more household chores – this went up during the extreme lockdown. But this data only focuses on working mothers, which make up only a percentage of the population.”

Harford points to certain sectors of work which had already engaged in more agile working, notably the big tech companies.

The 30% Club had conducted research on agile working, now termed working from home (WFM) pre-Covid and there were two standout observations.

The first was that both men and women wanted more control over their work.

“Initially we thought this would only be requested by women but this demand was cross-gender. However, the second message was that both genders felt that if they requested agile working practices they would be seen as less committed than their in-office colleagues.”

Harford sees the lockdown as doing an important job in removing much of the stigma from agile work practices.

Working conditions

“Of course, there are pluses and minuses to agile work, but the stigma has been removed. And it’s not just across a job, sometimes functions could be removed from the office, so portions of a job benefit from working from home.”

Once the home schooling is taken out of the equation, it turns out that men by default and by percentage contributed more to the home situation and in turn, they too could see the benefits of agile working.

Harford sees an opportunity to take these lessons learned to propel working conditions for the better into view, citing many jobs that would be done in an agile fashion. This works very much in favour of women with children, giving them a fairer place in the workforce.

“Previously C-suite female executives were under pressure to be available all the time and at a moment’s notice. Executives were expected to jump on a plane for face-to-face meetings across the world.

“Overnight we saw that teams could work remotely, that managers could hold meetings from their kitchen and that you didn’t need to fly halfway across the world just for a meeting.

“And to be honest, managing a remote team probably benefited from a more feminine skill set around trust, engagement and empathy.”

Interestingly, when the 30% Club was set up in Ireland, female representation on boards of Irish Stock Exchange companies was a low 12 per cent. In March of this year, it hit 31 per cent.

“We are at a tipping point, but we see 31 per cent as a floor rather than a ceiling. And, long term, Covid provided better flexibility and an ability to work in different ways – which not only benefits women, but people in general,” concludes Harford.