Rachel Thompson
Rachel Thompson, founder of RT Advance Consulting.
Jane Imrie

IWD 2021: Employment law entrepreneur Rachel Thompson on debunking home-working productivity myths and the importance of intersectionality

For International Women’s Day 2021, Bdaily reached out to a range of female business leaders from across our key regions to share how their experience of the pandemic has shaped their passion for gender equality.

Employment law specialist Rachel Thompson, who is based in Leeds, faced the global uncertainty head on - forming her own business RT Advance Consulting during the pandemic.

Rachel spoke to Bdaily about the move from employee to entrepreneur, how the pandemic taught her the value of life and her passion for equality across all demographics.

As a woman, how have you personally adapted during the pandemic, and what challenges have you faced?

My circumstances had changed significantly during the pandemic, I went from being head of employment law at a large commercial business, to establishing my own employment law and HR consultancy, and working for myself.

“It was a huge change, but in a way, the pandemic helped prepare me for it, and made the transition smoother. The business started in November, but I had been working from home because of the pandemic since March, so had already settled into a routine in that respect.

“I had become familiar with meetings via Teams or Zoom and I was able to conduct business efficiently from my home. As much of the world was also working from home, it became a normal place to conduct business, so initial concerns that clients would prefer to work with someone who sat in a glossy office were quickly washed away.

“In a way, I think the pandemic played a role in my decision to work for myself. It taught me how precious life is and how quickly circumstances can change. So why not take a chance on myself.

How have you and your business supported women during the past year?

“Working in employment law, it is my job to stay proactive and assess the impact of the pandemic upon businesses and employees. To prepare for upcoming changes and plan to respond and adapt. Home working, school closures, furlough and businesses implementing changes have all had a huge impact on women in business.

“Throughout the pandemic we have helped to educate. This includes informing businesses of the support available (for businesses and employees) and how to access it. We have helped to implement changes in a fair and balanced way.

“We have guided employers on employee related rights, as to help ensure employees are treated fairly and that women are not directly or indirectly disadvantaged because of their sex. We have provided advice and guidance in terms of access to dependant leave, parental leave and flexible working.

“As well as supporting our clients in this way, we have shared a large amount of guidance online, providing free content, seminars and thought leadership, and offered complementary consultations to any businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic.

“As we move towards a post pandemic future, I can’t help but feel optimistic about what a ‘return to work’ will look like, and the ways in which we can continue to support businesses with implementing new changes and ways of working.

What opportunities do you feel that the pandemic has created for women, if any?

“I think that, because of the pandemic and the requirement it brought to adapt quickly in uncertain times, businesses have been forced to consider alternative methods of working. In many cases, the resilience of the people within these businesses really shone through.

“Stigma around working from home, and old-fashioned beliefs that employees don’t work as hard when at home were quickly disproven by the large majority, as everyone pulled together.

“We learnt that working from home, and in turn, more flexible working relationships provided in many ways to be good for business - and the negative impacts many worried this would have, never really came true. In fact, in my experience, many businesses found increased levels of performance and productivity.

“This type of working arrangement better lends itself to work life balance and so will have huge benefits for women in business moving forward, particularly those who are trying to balance their career with childcare responsibilities.

“I hope that this would therefore create better opportunities for more flexible working relationships and more control over working hours.

“Also, with more people working from home and working more flexibility, there is less stigma around this type of working relationship. I hope that this results in better progression and other opportunities for women to excel in the workplace.”

In your opinion, has the pandemic highlighted any gender imbalances in business?

“Yes. Statistically women bear the bulk of childcare responsibilities within the UK. So, the impact of the pandemic in terms of the school closures has had a significant impact on them. Balancing work with childcare and home-schooling has placed many women under substantial strain.

“The government updated its furlough scheme guidance on 5 January 2021 to clarify that employees can be furloughed for childcare reasons. However, it’s for employers to determine whether they furlough their employees, and many have chosen not to do so.

“Statutory dependant leave is available for employees to deal with emergencies involving a dependant. Eligible employees may also take a period of statutory parental leave. However, both types of leave are unpaid, so result in loss of income.

“More generally, studies have shown that women were the majority (52.1 per cent) of workers put on furlough across the UK March – August 2020. As such, they are more likely to have suffered a drop in income, given that the scheme (at the time this was written) provides for 80 per cent of pay up to the cap.

“This has resulted in women spending more time away from the workplace, potentially losing valuable skills, social contact with colleagues and involvement in decision making.

“Last year the requirement for large businesses to report on their gender pay gap was removed due to the pandemic, and this year, businesses (although not encouraged to do so) may delay their reporting for up to six months. I think this sends out the wrong message, and that reporting on gender pay gap needs to be treated as a priority.

“Research has also suggested that nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of women report feeling increased levels of stress or anxiety due to the pandemic, compared to less than half (48 per cent) of men. I do therefore think the pandemic has highlighted significant gender imbalances in business.”

As we step into a post-pandemic business landscape, how do you think women’s roles in business may change?

“I hope that the pandemic has helped to highlight the imbalance between men and women in business and is used as a catalyst to encourage greater steps to remedy this.

“The more we talk about these issues, the more likely we are to see change. The pandemic has provided the opportunity to do this, and not only highlight the disparities between men and women in business, but also consider the impact upon our BAME communities and on mental health. I am hopeful we can use what we have learnt to make a real positive change.

“I think that more businesses will introduce greater flexibility into the workplace. This includes in terms of flexible working hours and where work is carried out (i.e., in the office or at home). The pandemic has shown us that flexible working arrangements can work and bring real benefits.

“I hope that flexibility will be encouraged amongst men as well as women, and in more senior roles where you tend to find lower uptake. This may lend itself to a more equal distribution of childcare responsibilities within households and support women in building on their career, as their working environment supports and encourages this.

“I think that the increased use of technology and the reduced requirement to travel or spend time away from home will also make it less challenging for women with children to do business and make their mark.

“When I first established RT Advance Consulting, I felt inspired by the women before me that had taken similar leaps. Their passion and enthusiasm helped me to believe that I could do the same.

“I think we will also see more women break the mould in this way, to have more freedom in terms of the way they work.”

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