How the ‘Covid hangover’ is impacting women’s careers

Four years since lockdown, did the pandemic have a detrimental effect on the career prospects of female marketers?

Career progression gap
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Almost four years have passed since the UK went into lockdown, but the career ramifications of Covid are still being felt today.

Looking back at Marketing Week’s own data, 15.2% of female marketers responding to the 2020 Career and Salary Survey had been made redundant. A further 18.2% of this female cohort were furloughed, while 18.2% had their pay or bonus reduced, 6.1% saw their hours slashed and 3% had a promotion delayed or made unlikely.

Globally, McKinsey calculated job losses among women were 1.8 times greater than among men due to Covid. While women made up 39% of global employment, by the summer of 2020 they accounted for 54% of overall job losses.

As homeschooling kicked in, caring responsibilities ramped up and redundancy loomed, 2020 was a perfect storm. While those days can feel like a distant memory, the Covid career hangover remains an uncomfortable reality for many.

Laura Chamberlain, professor of marketing at the Warwick Business School and founder of self-development consultancy Think Talk Thrive, believes many within the industry have not got over their experiences under lockdown, from coping with maternity leave and the pressures of homeschooling, to the sense of complete isolation.

We went through this crappy situation, but one of the big benefits is you’re now getting a wider talent pool.

Justine Lee, The Foundation

She sees several “interesting hangovers” from the pandemic, whether that be negotiating hybrid working to the “veil of flexibility”.

“Flexibility has almost become a synonym for working more and that’s problematic. For me, the biggest problem is managers and leaders have not been trained how to manage and lead in the post-pandemic world,” explains Chamberlain.

She identifies overwork as a persistent problem, with some female marketers feeling the need to prove themselves after four years working under intense disruption.

“The other thing we’re seeing is people are desperate for knowledge. People are wanting courses and training, because there’s a lack of confidence and self-belief, which are actually two very different things,” Chamberlain adds.

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She notes a clear intersection between women grappling with overwork, not feeling able to set boundaries and “imposter phenomenon”. Post-Covid women are worried about being left behind, says Chamberlain, with marketing’s persistent gender pay gap and the wider motherhood pay penalty pressing issues to contend with.

“It all adds up into this maelstrom of difficult circumstances that mean we are constantly feeling challenged,” she explains. “It’s like women are facing challenge after challenge after challenge, and it’s exhausting. That’s why we’re seeing women burning out.”

The post-Covid pressure being exerted on senior marketers is filtering down to the next generation. Chamberlain explains that not only have these aspiring marketers had their education blighted by the pandemic, they’re catching up on foundational skills at speed amid fears they might never land a role.

“They know they’re on the back foot so they’re trying to figure out ways of beefing up their skillset,” she explains. “You see them desperately doing more courses or trying to do lots of different things to have a bigger CV to enter the job market. And all it is is pressure, pressure, pressure.”

A smokescreen?

The 2020 Career and Salary Survey data suggests female marketers were more likely to be made redundant than their male peers (15.2% versus 11.8%) in the aftermath of lockdown.

One senior female marketer turned consultant believes in some cases Covid was used as an excuse to make women redundant.

Speaking to Marketing Week in an anonymous capacity, this marketer returned from maternity leave in February 2020 working three days a week in a brand-side role within a male dominated organisation. By April she was being asked to work an extra day a week despite having no access to childcare under lockdown, as well as facing the possibility of making a junior team member redundant.

The marketer pushed back on both counts. Within weeks she was made redundant and legally prevented from discussing her dismissal as part of the severance agreement. Her experience leads this marketer to believe more women were pushed out during the pandemic than had Covid never happened.

“How much of a smokescreen was Covid? During that time, how many more people got made redundant with the reason that the business needs to make redundancies? I’m pretty sure there were more women made redundant during that time than there has been at any other time,” the marketer suggests.

Flexibility has almost become a synonym for working more and that’s problematic.

Professor Laura Chamberlain, Warwick Business School

Having gone through “the curve of being really angry, being really shocked and losing confidence”, she decided to pour her experience into her own venture, branching out as a freelance marketing consultant in August 2020.

“I’ve always been quite a resilient person. I’m up for a challenge, I might just take my time to think it through first rather than jumping in with both feet and I did that. I weighed it up and thought it was silly not to give it a go as I’ve got literally nothing to lose,” she recalls.

Having launched her website, the marketer attracted her first client via LinkedIn and hasn’t looked back since, although she would never rule out a return to the corporate world.

“How much might it stunt my career not being in a company around other people, not having that kind of support for career progression? It’s all on my own shoulders,” she reflects.

“Although I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing now compared to what I was doing before, if I’d have gone down a different path would I now be in a more senior role somewhere? I’m not too sure.”

This marketer is, however, convinced the pandemic unleashed a ‘can-do attitude’ among female marketers, many of whom decided to carve out their own niche.

“You make your own opportunities. You think: ‘Right, I can do this. I can find companies that want less hours and want someone more experienced rather than full time’ and build my own schedule based on myself,” she says. “Create my own flexibility.”

Finding freedom

Striking out on her own was a necessity for Nicola Pickup when lockdown was imposed. In 2019 she was working two days a week for an independent travel agency as a sales and marketing manager, and three days as business development manager for a hotel.

Fast forward to spring 2020 and with the travel agency and hotel both closed, Pickup was on furlough with no redundancy pay out and a new house to pay for. She did some work for the government’s Track and Trace scheme and was poised to take on factory work before seeing a Facebook post for a software development skills bootcamp in August 2020.

Pickup decided to give the course a go, but two weeks in the project manager suggested she should take over as course leader.

“She said: ‘Do you want to do my job? I’m going to theological college to be a vicar and I’m supposed to be going in January when this project finishes, but they’ve offered me a place earlier and I really want to take it. Do you want the job?’” Pickup recalls.

Taking the leap, she took on the course leader role and stayed to manage three cohorts before seeing an opportunity to work with a digital marketing skills bootcamp. After designing and running the course, as well as recruiting the students, Pickup went to work for skills provider We Are Digital as a continuous improvement manager.

How much of a smokescreen was Covid? During that time, how many more people got made redundant?

Anonymous marketer

Now helping other providers design courses in her role as freelance skills bootcamp consultant, Pickup explains Covid made her realise that having multiple roles was a good fit and rather than being seen as a ‘job hopper’ she flourishes in a portfolio career.

Had the pandemic never happened she believes she would still be working for the same companies and would never have explored this new direction.

“It was full circle for me, because I worked in project management 20 years ago before I set up my own business. It just felt right really. I saw it as a massive opportunity,” Pickup adds.

Her experience of pivoting to freelance is shared by many fellow members of the Mums in Marketing community, including Michelle Mowbray. A marketer with 25 years’ experience – including two decades at MediaCom – Mowbray founded her company Be Seen Consulting during the pandemic.

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Having concluded a redundancy process in January 2020, she was about to start a new agency role when Covid hit. Within weeks the job offer had disappeared. A single mother with a mortgage to pay, she thought it was now or never.

“I had nothing to lose. What if I just start? I’m not going to find a job. If I could find a job it won’t be one I want. I’ve got this [redundancy] money in my back pocket. I’d had a couple of conversations with partners I could buddy up with. I just thought: ‘Go for it,’” Mowbray recalls.

“In the end, the agency came back and offered me a reduced salary, part time. I turned it down, went down this path and never looked back.”

Pivoting at pace

When Be Seen Consulting was founded in summer 2020, Mowbray’s network rallied round to the point that now all her work is based on referrals. She remembers being “overwhelmed” by the support she received, which helped ease any initial doubts about going solo.

Four years on Mowbray loves the flexibility of freelance and has no interest in returning to the corporate world. That said, making the shift took hard work and she believes blending something you love with a service clients need is the winning formula. Without the pandemic she would never have come to that realisation.

“I definitely wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Covid. If it wasn’t for all the lives lost and the decimation of the economy, it worked out well for me. Career-wise and life-wise everything’s much better,” she reflects. “The stress is my stress, it’s controllable.”

If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I probably could have grown my business quicker. But, now that it has happened it has grown my skillset.

Raimonda Richardson, Force4Events

For Raimonda Richardson, a fellow member of the Mums in Marketing community, Covid meant pivoting at speed.

An events marketing consultant and founder of Force4Events, Richardson had to learn fast as in-person events ended overnight and shifted to virtual. Getting to grips with Zoom and the emergence of audio platforms like Clubhouse, she upskilled as lockdown hit.

“It was a bit of a shock to think my business, vision and dreams could just come crashing down,” Richardson explains. “I was determined to cling on to what I’d worked for and I saw virtual events as a way to keep something going.”

She identified a niche emerging for launch marketing. People on furlough were using their spare time to create courses and digital products, and needed help reaching audiences, which is where Richardson came in. Negotiating this change, while homeschooling two children, felt like entering uncharted territory.

While it’s hard to imagine what her professional life would look like had the pandemic never occurred, Richardson can see the upsides. Events, she explains, have changed dramatically, with organisers forced to define their USP rather than relying on a template of nibbles and networking. From a personal perspective the growth is more significant.

“If the pandemic hadn’t happened I probably could have grown my business quicker. But, now that it has happened it has grown my skillset and it awoke a more determined me, because I was not willing to give up on my business just because of something outside my control,” she states.

The pandemic also taught her not to settle and find ways to overcome challenges, rather than putting up with a bad outcome.

“I constantly think I need to get out of the situation and I’m able to spot problems earlier than I used to and think outside the box a bit more, rather than feel like I’m being restricted and limited in places I don’t want to stay,” Richardson adds.

Flexible future?

The mass adoption of remote working is another post-pandemic outcome the world continues to grapple with.

Justine Lee had been pushing for greater flexibility since her children were young. Back in 2011 she was offered a job in the charity sector, but the role came to nothing as the team pushed back on her request to work four days a week.

Running her own marketing and communications consultancy from her Herefordshire home by the time lockdown was imposed, Lee noticed a slew of remote marketing roles being advertised – something she’d been pursuing for years.

“Suddenly all these organisations were saying you could be based wherever you want,” she recalls. “I saw an opportunity for a job that sounded really good. It was a head of marketing role, which would have been my next career step.”

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Having landed the role with the Book Trust in early 2021, Lee commuted to London one day a week and worked the rest of the week from home, something that would have felt impossible just a few years prior. The adoption of remote working opened up roles that would never have been on the table or involved lengthy daily commutes to Bristol or Birmingham.

Lee is about to start another majority remote role as head of marketing at charity The Foundation, leading the marketing function. Looking back, she is convinced she would not be in this position without Covid. The benefits for businesses, too, are also clear.

“We went through this crappy situation, but one of the big benefits is you’re now getting a wider talent pool as an employer. You’re getting more perspectives and insight, especially in the charity sector which has always been very London-centric,” Lee notes.

The fact so many industries pivoted to remote during lockdown means marketers have evidence flexibility works when they enter conversations with potential employers.

“It isn’t like it’s an experiment anymore,” she adds. “It happened. It was successful. You’re able to feel more confident having those discussions. You’re not starting from a point of they’re saying five days in the office that’s all I can do.”

While conversations about remote working are possible, Lee believes brands are still failing to embrace different working patterns and part-time arrangements – especially for senior marketers – suggesting the industry is a long way from making flexibility the norm.