There is little doubt that coronavirus stands to have a lasting impact on gender equality in the workplace.

Some of the sectors that have been hit hardest by coronavirus, such as hospitality, leisure, and early years childcare, have a predominantly female workforce. And many women — particularly those on low incomes and from minority backgrounds — who rely, at least in part, on informal childcare, will have already seen their career suffer — and some may even have been forced out of the labour market altogether.

For those women who have been able to work from home, the juggling act of balancing a career, childcare, and in many cases home education too, has been a difficult one. Many primary caregivers, the majority of whom are women, have struggled either in their professional life, or home life, or often both.

A study by the Office for National Statistics found that in the first weeks of lockdown, in households with children under 18, women did on average two thirds more childcare than men each day — three hours and 18 minutes per day, compared to just two hours, respectively.

“This gender difference in total provision of childcare was mostly driven by the extra time women spent in carrying out non-developmental childcare such as washing, feeding and dressing children and supervision of children,” the report said.

Research from campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed found that 75% of working mothers have struggled to balance paid work with childcare during the pandemic, while 57% felt it had damaged their career prospects.

And as companies face tough financial circumstances, working mothers may fear they will be first in line for job cuts.

However, amidst all of this, the country has adapted to a new way of working — and one which presents a valuable opportunity for businesses to close the gender pay gap.

Closing the gap is not just about doing the right thing — there are also tangible benefits for business in implementing diversity at management level, and across the workforce in general.

In April 2017, the UK government introduced gender pay gap transparency regulations, which required all private sector and voluntary organisations with 250 employees or more — almost 11,000 UK employers — to publish their gender pay gap data.

At the very least at a time when consumers, particularly young consumers, are making choices based on how companies behave, businesses should expect that having a large gender pay gap will risk harming their public image.

Social media is a hugely powerful tool, both for driving business and for driving public opinion: Instagram account @pullupforchange has more than 130,000 followers and is publishing racial diversity statistics of large corporations; and the influencers who once promoted fashion giant Boohoo’s products turned to using their platform to condemn the treatment of workers in its supply chain. Companies can no longer expect to be given a free pass on inequality.

But it is not only about public image. Having both men and women around the table helps to develop new ideas, and encourage different ways of thinking. Top-level decision-making will benefit from having the input of women who may be more empathetic, collaborative, and risk-averse than their male counterparts.

Additionally, if a company can create an environment where men and women feel their work is valued equally, it will see the benefits in a workforce that is more engaged and productive. And a business will also benefit from both attracting the best talent, and from greater staff retention and lower human resources costs.

There is also a straightforward business case for greater gender diversity: research from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company has found that companies with more diverse leadership perform better financially.

Researchers looked at more than 1,000 companies across 15 countries, comparing their gender diversity and financial performance. They found that companies in the top quartile in terms of gender diversity at the top were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies with the least female representation in their executive teams.

The case for closing the gender pay gap is an obvious one. What is less obvious is how best to achieve it.

There is, without a doubt, no silver bullet. But there are steps that businesses can take to make working life easier for women — and one of these is facilitating home-working.

One of the most obvious ways in which remote working benefits women is in making working life more accommodating of motherhood — from facilitating nursery drop-offs and pick-ups, to making pumping much easier for breastfeeding women — working from home makes it easier for many working mothers to do both.

However, the benefits of home-working for women do not extend solely to mothers. There are myriad, many less obvious, advantages in giving women the opportunity to work outside of the office.

When working is remote, more communication is written, which puts women on a more even footing. On online communication platforms like Slack, women stand less chance of being interrupted and more chance of being credited for their contributions and ideas. Even in video meetings, it is harder for women to be shouted down or talked over by taller, louder, more aggressive male colleagues.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is still a very real problem that — despite the exposure granted by the #MeToo movement — is all too often not dealt with properly. The chances of being subjected to inappropriate comments or unwanted advances from male colleagues are minimised when time in the office is similarly minimised.

Of course not all women will want to work remotely, but according to one survey from US based remote-working company Zapier, women were more likely to request to work remotely, but were more likely to be turned down.

In the UK, employers are bound by law to consider flexible working requests, but they are under no obligation to grant them. Polling from the Trade Union Congress (TUC), published in September last year, revealed that almost a third of flexible working requests were refused.

Many employers, prior to coronavirus, had reservations about allowing their staff to work from home, no doubt concerned about productivity and the logistics of having team members working from different locations.

However, what coronavirus has done is enabled businesses to see that in a society driven by modern technology, it can work. And with this in mind, it may be harder for companies to turn down flexible working requests in future.

Some businesses have already made steps to embrace remote working longer term. Facebook, for example, recently announced that its employees could work from home until next summer, while software company Atlassian, headquartered in Sydney, Australia, has told its staff that they will never have to return to the office if they so wish — but the option of working from an office will remain open for those who want to.

For those companies who are yet to decide what the future holds for their workforce, this is a pivotal moment. Either they can adapt to this new way of flexible working, or revert back to the way things were and risk being left behind.

Many people are now in their fifth month of working from home, and while not everyone wants to continue working remotely indefinitely, some have adapted well and are reluctant to return to offices. As more and more companies offer that option, those who do not risk seeing a slow decline over the next decade. They face hemorrhaging staff, a struggle to recruit new talent, failure to get the best work from their teams, and seeing their public image suffer.

Now that remote working has proved itself to be viable, businesses that want to be successful will have to embrace that change. And, being ahead of the curve and at the forefront of this new frontier of work will mean reaping the benefits in terms of recruitment, retention, productivity, inventiveness, and reputation.

While the negatives of coronavirus are many and varied, the pandemic has also presented opportunities to change the world. And just as the world changed in the 1960s when women entered the workforce in great numbers, so it can change in the 2020s as remote working becomes the norm.