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Even before the pandemic, women were at a disadvantage in the workplace. The gender pay gap had been narrowing, but we still had a long way to go. Well that gap has now widened. The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report shows the impact of Covid-19 has increased the expected time to parity by a generation: from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.
The fall in female workforce participation, or the ‘Pink Collar Recession’, has been well documented. McKinsey & Co. research revealed women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable in this pandemic crisis than men’s jobs. And globally, women make up 39 per cent of the world’s employment but account for 54 per cent of overall job losses. The Guardian reported that between May and August last year, 90,000 Australian women lost their jobs, compared with 25,000 men. And in the US, cable network CNBC reported that women accounted for all job losses last December. The UN reports the situation is even worse in developing economies, where the vast majority of women’s employment (70 per cent) is in the informal economy, with few protections against dismissal or paid sick leave and limited access to welfare.
Unfortunately, the alarming statistics don’t stop there. In Deloitte Global’s survey of 400 working women across nine countries, the numbers tell a similar story. Nearly 82 per cent of women surveyed said the pandemic had disrupted their lives, and nearly 70 per cent of women who experienced these disruptions are concerned about their ability to progress in their careers.
While previous recessions and economic downturns have primarily affected men’s jobs, Covid has amplified the existing inequalities at play for women.
The pandemic brought a unique set of challenges that proved inescapable for many women. Job losses were combined with childcare closures and additional responsibilities, such as home schooling and more increased unpaid work. It all created an environment ripe for women to downshift their careers. For many working mothers, managing the triple load of paid work, parenting, and remote learning was the clincher to leave the workforce completely.
Even in 2021, there is a significant imbalance in the way caregiving is viewed, with the weight of responsibility still falling predominantly on women. Women continue to perform most primary caregiving for children and dependants, while also juggling the demands of their careers. This goes beyond childcare and extends to broader family care responsibilities. Women account for 71 per cent of those devoting 40 or more hours a week to the care of an ageing relative. These work-family pressures have a profound and tangible impact on the acceleration of women in their careers – and on their mental health and wellbeing, too.
Families bunkered down and coped as best they could through the upheaval of the last 18 months, but the financial ramifications for women dropping out of the workforce will be felt for years to come. In what is dubbed the ‘long-Covid career effect’, women will face more economic insecurity and less financial stability than their male counterparts who stayed in the workforce. This is particularly troubling, given women typically retire with less superannuation than men. On top of usually working in lower-paid jobs, women are more likely to work part-time or take extended leave to raise children, which disrupts their ability to create long-term wealth. In retirement, this financial fragility limits women’s ability to support themselves and their families as they age, and can lead to bigger social issues like homelessness. It also becomes harder for women to get back into the workforce, given they also face age discrimination at work earlier than men.
The silver lining
There’s no denying our current state has set back women’s progress, but there is one monumental silver lining. As Arianna Huffington recently wrote, it has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine the way we work – for both men and women.
Research by Deloitte Global shows 77 per cent of working professionals are describing themselves as exhausted and burned out in the wake of the pandemic. As work-life boundaries get blurred, conflict between the two can hurt our mental health and wellbeing. People are working longer and it’s taking a toll. ‘Availability creep’ – where employees feel obligated to be available all the time to respond to work-related calls and emails or simply to meet their work demands – is one of the major factors contributing to burnout.
The last year-and-a-half has forced people to re-evaluate their relationship with work. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021. The tidal wave of resignations left a record-breaking 10.9 million open jobs at the end of the month. In this Great Resignation, workers are leaving jobs in large numbers if their role doesn’t suit them. Exhausted and burned out, people have realised life is too short to remain employed in a setting that doesn’t allow them the flexibility to work in a way that gives their life meaning.
Once considered the domain of the working mother, flexible working arrangements have become the norm around the world. Before this change, working parents often faced many stigmas in the workplace, from the walk of shame when leaving their desks to do the 3pm school run, to feeling judged for taking time off to care for an unwell child. Many parents had no option but to operate as if their work life and home life were two completely separate entities.
Since the rise of remote work and videoconferencing, however, there has been a universal acceptance and understanding of the weighty demands placed on parents – an eye-opener that has been as good for fathers as it has for mothers.
Cast your mind back four years, to when Professor Robert Kelly’s BBC interview went viral when his two young children burst through the door during a live broadcast. His panicked partner closely followed, suitably mortified, and dragged the children backwards, out of the room. Now, we barely blink if children interrupt a meeting; it’s given us a glimpse into our colleagues’ lives that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. There’s possibly no other more humbling moment for a CEO than their team bearing witness to how little control they have over a charismatic yet unwieldy toddler.
We’ve come a long way since BBC Dad. Not only has remote work become acceptable, but there has been a transference of power from the employer to the employee.
Leaders now have not only the opportunity but the obligation to redefine their employees’ work for the better. The risk if they don’t is losing their best workers to the talent wars. People will jump ship to organisations already integrating workplace policies and initiatives for the betterment of their people.
The statistics consistently show what’s good for women is good for the economy. Corporations with more gender-equal boards financially outperform those without women. And globally, reducing barriers in the workplace for women significantly boosts welfare and growth.
To help overturn the systemic inequality women face, companies need to step up to support female employees and help all employees navigate work-life challenges.
The onus now is on organisations to implement practices like flexibility and extended parental leave, so women don’t have to choose between their children or their careers. Employers who advocate for their workers, and foster an environment where men also feel comfortable requesting flexible working arrangements, can help drive change in culture at all levels. Organisations that make it easy for women to return to the workforce will not only reap the benefits economically but also will help reverse the negative impacts of the pandemic.