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24th November 2020

The Pandemic Impact on Gender Equality at Work

It is undeniable that 2020 has been a year of change, uncertainty and challenges for many of us. Studies investigating the effect of the pandemic on people’s lives have brought to light something concerning. They have shown that one group has been particularly badly affected by the impact of Covid-19 at work – women. In this month’s article, we explore the effect of the pandemic on gender equality at work and what we can do to address it.

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg: 1933-2020

Gender equality in the workplace is not a topic that is easy to discuss, it makes us feel uncomfortable. We find it hard to believe that women can still be discriminated against or treated unfairly at work in the current age. However, a few studies [1,2,3,4,5,6] conducted earlier this year confirmed that, unfortunately, gender inequality in the workplace is still present and has been affecting women during the pandemic.

How has the pandemic affected gender equality at work?

McKinsey & Company released the 2020 edition of ‘Women in Workplace’ [2], a study focused on the experiences of women and gender inequalities. Workplace data showed substantial differences between men and women and the impact of Covid-19. The findings suggest that women are 1.3 times more likely than men to consider stepping out of the workforce, slowing down their careers or changing to a less demanding job because of Covid-19.

Other studies [2,4] have revealed more worrisome statistics. Women have been more likely than men to work in sectors that have had to stop operating to contain the spread of the virus, such as hospitality and retail. Consequently, they have also been more likely to be furloughed. However, only 65% of women on Furlough Leave have had their wages topped up beyond the 80% government cap provided for under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, compared to 75% of men. The latter can be related to both the types of industries where women predominantly work and the less senior positions they are more likely to occupy.

Some groups of women are particularly disadvantaged.

A lot of the women in the workforce are also mothers. They have been doing a “double shift” even before the pandemic. They would do a full day of work, followed by several hours of looking after the children and doing household labour. However, now that child support has become unavailable or limited (e.g. schools or childcare), women have been overworking themselves and struggling to juggle work and childcare. Many of them have contemplated what they would have considered unthinkable just a year ago: leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers. According to a recent study, 1 in 4 women is faced with making that decision [5].

Working from home has in general been more detrimental to women than men. A recent study by Researchers from IFS and the UCL Institute of Education [5] of 3,500 families with opposite-gender parents explored how they shared paid work and domestic responsibilities during the pandemic. What they found was that the female partners were 23% more likely to have lost their job since the crisis began. A further study [3] also suggests that men are more likely to say that working from home has positively affected their career: 57% of men vs. 29% of women. They are also far more likely to say that they have been more productive since working from home (67%) compared to women (41%).

Women of colour are also one of the groups extremely highly affected by the pandemic. The concerns about job loss, and reduced pay or hours are extremely high among this group [3]. Black women, in particular, are almost twice as likely as white men to say they have been made redundant, furloughed or had their working hours reduced due to the pandemic [3].

What about women’s mental health?

Something else that should not be underestimated is the effect of this situation on women’s mental health. Women are burning out. They are experiencing a rise in mental health problems related to their increased workload when working from home. The Burnout Britain Report [6], published a day before World Mental Health Day, shows that women are 43% more likely to have increased their standard working hours per week compared to men. 83% of the women who have to juggle working from home and childcare experience problems with their mental health.

Overall, it is undeniable that Covid-19 is threatening to wind back the hard-earned progress women have made in the pursuit of gender equality in the workplace. In such challenging times, it is important to remember the pioneers for gender equality. They were the ones who demonstrated to the world the latter is worth fighting for. One such pioneer was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who we sadly lost earlier this year. She was a fierce defender of gender equality. Her ground-breaking work changed the perception of women’s rights and gender equality at work. She was a force of nature, the second woman to ever be elected to the US Supreme Court. Her passion and dedication to promoting and supporting gender equality in the workplace can be an inspiration and her fight is now ours to continue.

Organisations should recognise the challenges women are facing during the pandemic and aim to make a difference. They should continue to add to the progress of gender equality achieved by Ruth Ginsberg and others like her.

What can employers do to support gender equality during the pandemic?

With Covid-19 putting women in a vulnerable position, businesses should be ready to make changes.

  • Organisations should consider whether they can offer greater flexibility to their staff. Can employees, particularly women, have work flexibility which can allow them to juggle work and home commitments? Perhaps the answer might be to offer adjusted working hours within a working day? Women should be able to request flexible working. This would require employers to have adequate flexible working policies and train managers how to handle such requests.
  • Employers should review their promotion and bonus criteria to ensure they do not leave female employees at a disadvantage. Women who are working fewer hours due to childcare should not be excluded from bonus schemes on those grounds.
  • Companies should further ensure that their return-to-office approaches do not unintentionally exclude women. For example, meetings should be scheduled for a time suitable for all attendees, including those still working from home. That would ensure that everyone can participate equally.
  • Businesses should make an explicit commitment to supporting and advancing women from BAME backgrounds and communicate this to their employees. They should foster a culture where women of colour would feel fully valued and included.
  • Companies should ensure that they have employee assistance programmes available to staff, such as mental health counselling. They should also regularly remind employees about the full range of benefits available to them.
  • Businesses should raise awareness about unconscious biases in the workplace and challenge people’s assumptions. A woman can be on a work video call and have a child playing in the background. However, this should not lead to the assumption that she is less committed to her work.

The percentages above show the clear impact the pandemic has had on women in the workplace. The threat to gender equality at work presented by Covid-19 is real. We at Impact believe that we must all pledge to work towards lowering the percentage of women suffering this inequality. This will be for the good of both our families and the economy. Will you join us?

Useful resources providing further analysis and data on the impact of the pandemic on women:

[1] Lean in Research: How COVID-19 Is Impacting Women

[2] Women in The Workplace 2020

[3] Qualtrics & Theboardlist: Not in The Same Boat: Career Progression in the Pandemic

[4] Exiting Lockdown: The Impact on Women

[5] Parents, Especially Mothers, Paying Heavy Price for Lockdown

[6] Burnout Britain