The Women’s Organisation has received more than 7,500 enquiries from businesses and individuals since COVID-19 lockdown began a year ago, more than double its average annual rate.
On 23rd March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown. A week of announcements that shook the nation saw those with underlying health issues advised to shield, school closures and the NHS cancelling all non-emergency surgery appointments. The UK headed into unknown territory as a population of over 66 million people became isolated at home overnight.
The Women’s Organisation’s multi-skilled team adapted quickly to support the thousands of businesses and individuals who rely on their advice, expertise, and guidance. Just two days after the lockdown announcement sent shockwaves through the business community, they held their first online session via Zoom. The ‘Planning for Business’ session was hugely popular, with attendees signing up to continue to make their self-employed dreams a reality despite the restrictions in place.
As the organisation would find in the coming months, the demand for their services began to increase as women began to look for support as they adapted to the changing world and needed urgent business advice. As the country shut down, The Women’s Organisation changed tack.
Maggie O’Carroll, CEO of The Women’s Organisation said: “From the very start, we had no idea how long the effects if COVID-19 would last, but we knew we had to galvanise our response and services for our clients and reach out to those facing an uncertain future. While other organisations within in the business support arena had put their staff on furlough, we realised we had to put our pedal to the metal to help people and their businesses to make it through.’’
As lockdown weeks began to stretch into months the restrictions to manage COVID had a disproportionate effect on women, with research showing that not only have women been more heavily affected by COVID related unemployment, leaving their workplaces at four times the rate of men, but that where schools and nurseries have been forced to close, women have shouldered the extra burden of childcare and home-schooling – even when continuing to work from home. This created an environment where one in four women became forced to consider downshifting their career or leaving their position.
For some, this was a chance to look at how they could start their own business, and women across the UK began to look for help and advice as they explored how they could start-up and create meaningful change through new enterprise.
Spurred on by the enthusiasm and drive clients were showing in the face of adversity, a digital programme of more than 150 training courses, workshops and webinars were rolled out, business advisers offered appointments via Zoom, WhatsApp or phone, to ensure their expert advice was readily available and one-to-one calls and mentoring provided individual support along with online group workshops and informal business Q&A style discussions. The impact has been tremendous.
Francine Taylor Business Advice Team Coordinator at The Women’s Organisation said:
“The past year has seen huge change in the way we support our clients, and our flexible approach means we are able to offer the same level of wraparound support for women starting a new business or looking for some help with their current enterprise.The most noticeable difference between start up and business growth throughout 2020 was the lack of financial support. Without our expert help and guidance many women may have been unable to access loans and grants as the usual pathways were closed.
“I am proud to look back on the last 12 months and see that not only did we continue to support women in business, but that we saw a 50% increase in those accessing our services who were able to the help they needed, despite these very difficult times.”
Women’s Organisation is proud to have played a part in supporting women throughout an incredibly difficult year. Annual figures show the charity received more than double the average amount of enquiries and offered vital support to more than 1100 businesses which enabled them to access finance and business grants.
The Women’s Organisation plays a key role in women’s research and across the last year, alongside a number of influential partners has submitted no less than 7 research and policy papers to the government to influence policy and inspire change. This includes ‘Rethinking the Economy for an Inclusive and Sustainable Future’ published October 2020 and the ‘State of Small Business Britain 2020’ report written with The Enterprise Research Centre.
Maggie added: “It has been an extraordinary year where everything changed, a staggering loss of life, and where fear and anxiety reigned. A year where women bore the brunt of home schooling, care, job losses and a tsunami of abuse and misogyny all too often ending in injury and worse.
“It has also been a year of hope and optimism, where people and communities have come together to help each other and where entrepreneurs have done what they do best – be inventive, innovative, respond to apparent needs, opportunities and take risks.
“Social entrepreneurs and enterprises have been at the forefront of delivering lifesaving and enhancing services from mental health support, education, food delivery, to care and arts and cultural events. Equality, diversity, inclusion, and social value at the heart of what they do, how and why they do it. It’s not over yet so we need to keep pushing forward but, in the meantime, it is useful to look back at what has been done, what has been achieved and its impact.
“This virus has laid bare the already entrenched inequalities in our society, which have only been exacerbated by the measures to tackle COVID. It is vital to redress this balance and to make sure that women and other groups are properly protected and supported to reach their potential and play full roles in social and economic life.
“Businesses must quickly adapt, and adopt gender-inclusive workplace policies and practices, including flexible work arrangements and family-friendly workplaces that will in turn, encourage a more balanced share of care and family responsibilities between women and men.’’
The next few months are uncertain as the roadmap of COVID recovery set out by the government starts to move to the next stage. With news of new strains and possible future lockdown it is difficult to make plans with confidence. The Women’s Organisation is committed to supporting women wherever the roadmap takes us. On hand to support, facilitate and encourage both business and personal wellbeing and development, helping women to fulfil their potential remains at the heart of The Women’s Organisation values.