The Covid-19 pandemic is disproportionally impacting working women, with many taking on additional childcare, household and remote learning responsibilities.
The financial toll from the absence of women contributing to the workforce could stunt GDP growth by over USD 1 trillion by 2030. However, if companies address gender imbalances worsened by the pandemic, global GDP could increase by USD 13 trillion by 2030.
At the corporate level, worsening gender inequality in the workplace could result in companies sacrificing significant financial gains, while limiting performance and productive capacity by missing top talent and investments. Notably, many businesses could become targets for social justice
Companies can address gender inequities in the remote work environment by offering women more flexible work schedules, providing online learning opportunities to help career progression, and implementing more compassionate and empathetic leadership styles to alleviate employee stress.
Challenges Faced by Working Women During the Covid-19 Pandemic
Over the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has illuminated societal disparities of race and ethnicity, yet the issue of gender inequality also runs deep. The shift to remote working has proved challenging for many, but this transition is disproportionally impacting working women.
The following analysis will categorise women collectively regardless of race and ethnicity to highlight the impact Covid-19 has had on gender inequality in the workplace. We do acknowledge, however, that women of colour may be more disadvantaged as they are often a minority at work, and more likely to experience a loss during the pandemic – statistics from the US Centre of Disease and Control found black people were twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than white, non-Hispanic people.
A November 2020 report released by UN Women found women are working over 31 hours of unpaid labour per week relating to childcare during the pandemic, which is almost equivalent to a full-time job. Working men are also helping with childcare, however, statistics highlighted the average time men spent on childcare was 3 hours less than women. Likewise, the proportion of men helping with children’s education due to remote learning was 3% less than that of women.
Household responsibilities are also exacerbating gender inequality in the workplace, with 70% of women stating that the pandemic is disrupting their work routine and therefore hindering their career progression. As a result, women are opting to down scale their careers, while many are resigning permanently from the workforce to accommodate for the changes brought on by unprecedented challenges.
Over 28 million women over the age of 25 have left the labour market altogether in 55 high- and middle-income countries over the last year, compared to 24 million men. Considering that women were already less likely to be in the workforce, this represents a threat to their economic status.
The financial toll from the absence of women in the workforce is clearer still when placing the issue of gender inequality within the context of global GDP. Research from S&P Global indicates that less women contributing to the workforce could stunt GDP growth by over USD 1 trillion by 2030. On the other hand, if companies address gender imbalances worsened by the pandemic, global GDP could increase by USD 13 trillion by 2030.
The opportunity cost of ignoring gender disparities in the workplace for business and governments is undeniably significant. These statistics paint a clear reality that achieving pre-pandemic normality will take longer without the contributions of women.
Business Implications and Forecast
If women in executive positions continue to leave the workforce, companies are sacrificing significant financial gains. Research from the University of Pennsylvania found greater female representation at a C-Suite level increases company creativity, as women often have the tendency to assess and analyse problems, while men often take action.
A more gender inclusive workforce allows companies to strike the right balance between analytical and actionable decision making when exchanging ideas, while facilitating greater creativity that can drive profitability. Surveys from the Peterson Institute for International Economics and McKinsey & Company find businesses with women comprising at least 30% of leadership roles added over 1 percentage point to their net margins compared to similar firms with no female leaders.
A lack of gender diversity in the workplace also places a cap on company performance levels as it drives away key talent and limits investment opportunities. A more inclusive and diverse workforce offers businesses a competitive edge against rivals as gender diversity plays a significant role in strengthening a company’s image and reputation. This in turn renders the business more attractive to high-performing applicants.
A strong reputation for gender inclusivity can also boost investment; positive investor risk appetite is correlated with workforce diversity as these companies are less likely to attract negative political attention while being less prone political conflicts.
With Covid-19 giving rise to social activist movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), expectations are rising for businesses to show solidarity to sensitive political causes. Although it is uncertain when, or if, the gender equality movement will generate the same level of response in the coming months, publicity generated from the disproportional impact of Covid-19 on working women could exacerbate the damage to a company's reputation if accused of sexist and immoral business policies, which could lead to boycotts. To avoid such backlash, businesses may consider pre-emptively communicating and addressing issues of gender inequality in the workplace.
How Companies Can Support Women in the Workplace
Companies are starting to offer flexible work schedules to women to address gender inequalities in the workplace. Although flexible working can mean employees pick their location of work, it could also mean that some women work shorter hours per day but have longer work weeks, or job share. A flexible approach can not only increase female job retention, but it will benefit the whole workforce as employees find a balance between work and home without the guilt of not being “online” all the time.
In combination with flexible work schedules, companies providing online learning may find an increase in female job retention as women who juggle additional home-life responsibilities can fit classes around their daily work schedules. This not only relieves some of the pressure on working women, creating a more positive work environment, but also diminishes women’s concerns of the pandemic derailing their careers.
The unprecedented impact of Covid-19 on the workplace is encouraging businesses to foster more compassionate leadership styles to instil loyalty and engagement among their teams. Without empathy, the business-as-usual approach risks hampering the creativity and high-level performance that businesses need to navigate through the pandemic and the associated economic fallout.
Some businesses are also introducing a more sustainable pace of work by pushing back work deadlines or narrowing project scopes to support women seeking to balance their work life and other household responsibilities. Small adjustments to the employee’s workflow can open time for additional familial responsibilities and avoids complete burnout.