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The Impact of Covid-19 on Women in Business

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To gauge the impact of Covid-19 on women, I recently spoke to a range of businesswomen in my network. We spoke about how the pandemic has impacted their careers and the results were both shocking but unsurprising.

Take, for example, this businesswoman and mother I chatted to who is a manager at a global multinational in Ireland. “As a parent working remotely, Covid-19 has been an enormous strain on family life, often it is the mother carrying the load at home while holding a role at a similar level as their partner. If schools/creches were to close it would be detrimental to the advancement of workplace inclusion and female participation.”

Or this woman who is currently working as a Director at a US multinational, “as part of a dual-career couple, I feel like I am in a continuous negotiation on the divide of family responsibilities, the majority of which ultimately fall to me. I am fortunate to work for a company offering exceptional flexibility however, I still feel overwhelmed enough to consider a complete career break until ‘things’ return to normal.”

I’m in those shoes myself, working from home full time, parenting two children and juggling home & life responsibilities. All of which seems to have spiralled the more time we all spend living and working from home. Like many of us, I’m finding it more and more difficult to switch off and the blur between work and home is definitely real.

The facts back this up too. A result of the current pandemic, and the ripple effect on the global economy, the gender gap will now take 257 years to close in terms of economic participation, compared to 202 years in the 2019 report - that is an extra 55 years for women to be equally represented.

None of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will our children. That’s the sobering finding of Global Gender Gap Report 2020. So why is this, and what can we do to push back against it?

75% of jobs lost permanently to Covid-19 are women's jobs Covid-19 is a crisis like no other and reports are already showing that it is impacting women more than men. According to McKinsey, 2 /3 of jobs that have been lost permanently as a result of Covid-19 are women's jobs and women are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic’s impact than men.

The sectors* women traditionally work in have also been hit hardest. For example:

  • Childminders (96% female)

  • Waiters/waitresses (79% female)

  • Kitchen and catering assistants (61% female)

  • Leisure and travel service occupations (64% female)

  • Hairdressers & beauticians (89% female)

  • Sales assistants (68% female)

  • Cleaners (69% female)

*Statistics taken from CSO Q4 2019

What’s more troubling is that previous crises have shown that it takes women much longer to recover, in an economical sense, than men. Some of the key reasons behind this are the hours women spend on unpaid work, the lack of women in leadership roles and societal biases against women.

The impact of unpaid care work on women’s careers

Women spend fewer hours in paid work than men on average but more hours in unpaid work such as childcare and housework. In fact, according to the International Labour Organization women bear the burden of 75% of all unpaid care work, while the UN reported in this year that women´s unpaid contributions to health care equate to the equivalent of $1.5 trillion.

All the while women’s career choices and progression continue to be damaged. A female manager at a global multinational I spoke to echoed this message strongly, “when schools & creches were closed women were disproportionately affected with the burden of childcare. Even in households with 2 parents' women often take on the lions share impacting work performance and mental health so you feel like you aren’t doing anything to the best of your ability. Not being the best employee or the best parent.”

As Europe returns to lock down and the majority of people work from home, these impacts aren’t going anywhere.

Underrepresentation of women in leadership roles

Think about the various public statements from our government over the past 6+ months, can you remember any women? Across the world for every 3 people who present public statements about Covid-19, only 1 is a woman.

Yet we see some of the most effective responses coming from countries such as Iceland, New Zealand, Finland, and Denmark who all have women in government leadership positions.

In healthcare, 85% of nurses on the frontlines are women, but women still face disadvantages, including in wages, due to "hierarchical structures and gender stereotypes" (WHO 2019).

In short women’s voices aren’t being heard, even when we’re heavily involved in the workload.
In the business world, companies are at risk of losing women in leadership positions.

This is an alarming thought and the financial consequences could be significant as research in the Women in the Workplace 2020 report shows that when women are well represented at the top, companies are 50% more likely to outperform their peers.

Beyond that, companies need balance and without senior-level women and younger generations will lose powerful allies and mentors.

Fewer women on track for leadership

The first step up to manager continues to hold women back, which Dechert’s Managing Partner Carol Widger speaks about to great effect in this interview on the gender gap at leadership level within the legal sector.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn’t unique to one sector. The BBC recently reportedthat while shareholders are happy to support female directors when business is going well, they are more likely to withdraw their support in times of crisis.

LinkedIn data echoes this and in a recent report on women’s employment, they reported on a worrying trend which shows how the hiring of women falls when lockdown measures are brought in. Why is this the standard and how can we put a stop to it?

Social leadership - what can we do to support women?

Companies need to realise the impacts Covid-19 is having on women so they can address it head-on. The first thing companies should do is speak to all of their employees.

Ask your people what problems are holding them back or what worries are impacting their performance. The results can guide the types of policies that could best address your employees' specific concerns and situations.

Within Cpl, since March, we’ve held regular online CEO broadcasts and our HR team launched a rebranded EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) service along with a new internal intranet to boost communication. Platforms like these help us monitor employee mood and respond to problems in real-time. The following can also be helpful for women and business as a whole:

Increased flexibility is something we all need right now, particularly women taking care of young children or elderly family members. Fathers should also have access to supports and be encouraged to do their fair share. This will help promote longer-term change and support.

Interestingly, when flexibility policies are only offered to parents the impacts can be negative. However, if flexibility policies are companywide stigma is reduced and uptake increases. This could be worth considering if you find women on your team are anxious to avail of time off or flexibility.

Mentors and leading by example: The best and most important strategy for ensuring gender equality is to increase representation and inclusion at all levels of planning and decision-making.

In its most simple sense, you can do this by using your voice online and with colleagues. Speak up when you see wrongdoing, share helpful, informative content on your social networks, share stories encourage your people managers to do the same. If you’re not sure what’s good, or bad, ask questions and be curious and open to learning.

It is not all doom and gloom. Some of the most effective responses to Covid-19 are coming from countries that have women in government leadership positions. This should reinforce to companies that diversity in their teams is not just a nice-to-have, but a must-have.

If companies can rise to the challenges the Covid-19 crisis has thrown into high relief, we may be laying the foundation for a better workplace for everyone.

All women are wearing superhero capes now and we sure need them to get us through these crazy, crazy times. If you’re interested in learning more please reach out, I’d be happy to discuss. You can also find more employer resources on the Insights section of the Cpl website.