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Culture | 5 min

The impact of COVID-19 on women at work

The impact of COVID-19 on women at work

Bit-by-bit, the gender gap for women at work has been closing.

More women are landing roles in senior executive teams and more women are working in traditionally-male dominated industries like engineering, IT and politics. In 2019, Finland voted in the world’s youngest female Prime Minster, Sanna Marin, to lead a government made up of 47% women.

The pay gap has been (very slowly) declining since its peak in 2014 and this is even being seen in sport, with Australian female cricketers recently winning the rights to be paid the same as their male counterparts in the Twenty20 World Cup. 

But there’s still a way to go. And the COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled many of the inequalities women across the globe continue to face at work, creating a ripple effect on their finances, families and mental health and wellbeing.

Financially, women typically earn less, have lower savings and lower superannuation. So for those women who found themselves out of work during the pandemic, they had less of a cushion to soften the blow. 

And more women did find themselves out of work than men.

McKinsey & Company reported that women (who make up 39% of global employment) accounted for 54% of overall job losses during the height of the pandemic. 

In Australia women lost jobs at a faster rate than men (5.3% vs 3.9%). Those who didn’t lose their jobs lost more hours than men did – 11.5% compared to 7.5%. 

In Canada, womens’ participation in the labour force is down to its lowest level in thirty years and although women accounted for 45% of the decline in hours worked in the downturn, they’re projected to only make up for 35% of the recovery.

This is because women make up a higher proportion of workers in ‘informal’ or non-permanent work, according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme. This means they are more vulnerable to shifts in demand which can impact hours, dismissal and entitlements for things like sick and holiday leave.

This isn’t helped by the fact that women tend to work in the industries that the pandemic hit the hardest: tourism, food, retail, real estate and administration. Women are also more likely to be self-employed or owners of micro or small-sized enterprises, which were also heavily impacted by lockdowns and tightening of purse strings.

Why working from home is not the answer

Working from home was parrotted by many leaders as the solution to the crisis and businesses acted fast to facilitate remote-work; but this simply isn’t an option for the vast number of women who work in jobs that can’t be done from home.

In fact, research by Michèle Tertilt from Mannheim University in Germany on the economic impact of COVID found that 28% of men work in jobs that can be done from home, compared to just 22% of women.

For those women who can work from home, many carry the burden of unpaid labour of cooking and cleaning, something sociologist Arlie Russel Hoschschild refers to as ‘the second shift’. 

You can only imagine what this would look like for those households with more people staying, working and learning from home. More dishes, more washing, plus the time spent caring for and homeschooling children.

Lastly, many of the economic recovery initiatives being proposed and enacted by governments are focusing on industries typically dominated by men, like infrastructure and mining.

 

What needs to be done?

“What is good for gender equality is good for the economy and society as well”.
– McKinsey & Company

In a report released prior to COVID-19, McKinsey & Company demonstrated that narrowing the gender gap can boost global GDP growth as well as provide financial dividends for businesses. 

This is now more important than ever.

While the bulk of the change needs to happen at policy and state levels (i.e. providing accessible childcare options to help women get back into work) there are a few key things you can do in your organisation to ensure women aren’t subject to ongoing disadvantage.

1. Set boundaries

As we’ve noted, for many families, COVID-19 has highlighted the inequalities in the traditional division of labour. Household and child care duties fall mostly to women, while men end up doing more overtime hours.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

As a HR manager or team leader, encourage and be sure that your male (and female) workers shut-down and switch off for the day. This change needs to happen from the top-down says Katie Hamilton, Head of Experience at Club Sandwich HR, as often the attitude that working late = working harder = the road to greater success is deeply ingrained into an organisational culture.

“Make sure you’re taking breaks and following good work practices and making these visible to your team. I’ve seen CEO’s post photos of themselves walking the dog at 2pm. More of this needs to happen.”

2. Offer flexibility, and understanding

Setting boundaries is important, but you also need to give your staff the flexibility to work in a way that suits them. For those caring for children at home, that might mean working later at night to spend the morning home schooling. For those not working from home, design shifts to be flexible to accommodate different needs and schedules. 

What about your family care and leave policy. Could that do with a review or refresh? Take inspiration from Italy, where working parents with children can take 15 days of parental leave to look after children below the age of 12, or can ask for a €600 (€1,000 for health workers) voucher for alternative care arrangements.

More than having the policies and structures in place, it’s about making the change at the cultural level. Even when women have flexible options available to them, they often worry that colleagues will view them as less hard-working or dedicated which could indirectly affect their capacity to succeed in their career.

Organisations need to demonstrate to their employees that it’s okay to use the policies or work flexibly and reiterate that there won’t be any adverse impacts from taking advantage of them.

Caitlin, who works for a large Canadian resources company, says that her and her husband shared the child-minding duties equally during COVID-19.

“We would try to schedule our meetings so that one of us was always free to keep an eye on the kids and if it so happened that we were both on a call, everyone was really understanding,” she said.

“Then we’d both break for dinner, bathing the kids etc and then once the kids were in bed we’d get a few hours of work done. 

“Our employer was very supportive of flexible work arrangements and understanding of the different circumstances each employee might be facing.”

3. Create a plan for hiring, supporting and advancing women

Today, only 28% of leaders are female, which shockingly has changed very little in the last 30 years. What’s more, women are disproportionately concentrated in low-level support and administration roles and the higher up the corporate ladder you get, the fewer women there are. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Executives – 23%
  • Senior managers – 29%
  • Managers – 37%
  • Professionals – 42%
  • Support staff – 47%

It’s both the attitudes of those hiring as well as women’s own biases towards themselves that impact their career progression. Research has shown that women are less likely to go for a job or promotion unless they feel they meet 100% of the criteria whereas men will take the chance and apply when they only meet 60%. Another report found that men are often hired or promoted based on their potential, whereas women are hired based on proven experience. 

To address this, businesses need to put a gender diversity action plan in place and allocate resources to hire, train and develop women to instil the skills and confidence to get them to the top. 


Things won’t change overnight, but to stop us from regressing further into the past after the pandemic recedes, we need to take sure steps to move forward.

Survey Playbook

 

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Culture | 5 min
The impact of COVID-19 on women at work
Bit-by-bit, the gender gap for women at work has been closing. More women are landing roles in senior executive teams and more women are working in traditionally-male dominated industries like engineering, IT and politics....
Culture | 5 min
Diversity and inclusion: the case for mental health
Diversity and inclusion aren’t just HR buzzwords or something to include in your strategic plan and annual report.  They are the attitudes, words and actions lived out at your organisation by every staff member...

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