COVID-19 has undoubtedly had a substantial impact on workplaces worldwide. While it may be years before we comprehend the full ramifications, the impact it has had on women in the workplace is becoming increasingly clear.
The events of 2020 and 2021 have turned workplaces upside down, leaving employees, most specifically women, facing highly challenging circumstances. For years, countries had been achieving consistent progress towards women’s economic empowerment, with the number of women in senior vice president positions growing from 23 to 28 percent from January 2015 to 2020, and representation in the C-Suite increasing from 17 to 21 percent. However, the pandemic has had an almost immediate effect on women’s employment.
Research conducted by the OECD found that the female unemployment rate increased sharply from 4.4% in March 2020 to a high of 16.1% in April 2020. UK data from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) suggests that more women’s jobs are at risk than men’s. Between July and October 2020, a total of 15.3 million jobs were furloughed in the UK, of which 52% were women’s jobs, despite women only making up 48% of the workforce.
A survey of nearly 400 working women across nine countries found that nearly 70% of women who have experienced adverse changes to their daily routines during the pandemic are concerned their career growth may be limited as a result.
With most research sharing similar findings, the question arises: Why has COVID-19 impacted women more than men?
Lockdowns have resulted in more women working from home full time. Whilst some women may have more free time as a result of changes to commuting and travel routines, most are experiencing a number of additional responsibilities and commitments added to their already busy lives.
Prior to the pandemic, women on average spent six more hours than men on unpaid childcare every week, according to research by UN Women. However, during COVID-19, women now spend 7.7 hours per week on unpaid childcare than men - equating to 31.5 hours per week, essentially an extra full-time job.
If this additional demand persists, it will force many women to leave the workforce, subsequently reversing gains towards gender equality and lowering economic productivity.
It should be noted that whilst many women may choose to quit the workforce temporarily, during COVID-19, with the intention of returning post-pandemic, research suggests that career pauses have long-term implications for women’s employment prospects, with women returning to lower-paid and lower-skilled positions.
Due to the nature of the pandemic, and the gendered distribution of workers across industries, women’s occupations are at more risk than men’s. In the UK, female-dominated industries are bearing the brunt of lockdown restrictions — with accommodation, food services, and arts, entertainment, and recreation the most impacted sectors. In October 2020, the accommodation and food service industry recorded the highest number of furloughed jobs - women make up 55% of jobs in this sector.
Surprisingly, it was discovered that 75% of furloughed male workers had their wages topped up beyond the 80% government gap provided for under the CJRS, compared to 65% of female workers. Whilst there is little commentary on this, it can be assumed that employers are likely wanting to protect those in senior, higher-paid roles which are typically held by men.
Women feeling more pressure
Many companies have taken important steps to support their employees during COVID-19, with employees receiving valuable information including updates on the company’s financial status, details about paid-leave policies, and more.
Almost every company now offers tools and services to assist employees in working remotely — however, companies are failing to address that the new norms and expectations are likely responsible for employee stress and burnout.
Research by Deloitte found that of the 400 women surveyed, under a quarter (23%) of respondents felt they need to always be “on” and readily available for work — with many citing fears they would have to end up choosing between their personal responsibilities and their careers.
Women who believe they must always be available at work have two main concerns if they are unable to do so: worry that they will be a burden on team members who are able to work during off-hours, and fear that their career advancement will be harmed.
With performance reviews, less than a third of companies have adjusted their criteria to account for challenges created by the pandemic — meaning that employees, especially women, are faced with the decision of either falling short of pre-pandemic expectations that are now unrealistic or pushing themselves to maintain an unsustainable pace.
The road to progress
Despite the challenges created by the pandemic, most women remain optimistic about their potential career progression. However, it is vital that barriers are broken down to prevent any future setbacks.
What can employers do and what do they need to be aware of?
Reset norms around flexibility
The pandemic has made it more difficult for employers to draw clear lines between work and home, with employees feeling like they are “always on.” Companies should encourage employees to set their own boundaries, and make arrangements that enable employees to have a manageable work/life balance, e.g. establish set hours for meetings, putting policies in place for responding to work emails outside typical business hours.
Take steps to minimize gender bias
Without a doubt the pandemic has amplified biases women have faced for years, thus to mitigate this, companies should speak publicly about this and its impact on women during COVID-19. Additionally, tracking outcomes for promotion and raises by genders, and a breakdown of layoffs and furloughs by gender - to ensure that women are being treated fairly.
Adjust policies and programs to better support employees
Companies should start to offer extended policies and programs that support employees during COVID-19, like offering paid time off to providing resources for homeschooling.
Providing dedicated support for female business initiatives and future female employment in high growth sectors of the economy
Governments, policymakers, businesses need to focus on retraining women to access jobs in growth areas and set up for financial support schemes to help female entrepreneurs and female-led start-ups.