Before Covid-19 hit, things were starting to look up for women at work. Equality was becoming more of a concrete possibility and less of a hazy dream.
In January 2020, women were reported as holding just over half of all payroll jobs in the US. It was a watershed moment: it’s only the second time this has happened, the first being after the “mancession” caused by the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. But this achievement has quickly been undermined by the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on working women. September 2020 saw 865,000 women leave the US workforce, four times the number of men. The BBC has called this a “shecession”, reporting that globally, women’s job losses due to Covid-19 are 1.8 times that of men.
Exacerbating (employment) inequality
The global health crisis has exacerbated inequality across the board. In its report Women in the Workplace, McKinsey & Company acknowledged the problem of the “broken rung” that predated the pandemic: “For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted – and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted. As a result, women remained significantly outnumbered at the manager level at the beginning of 2020 – they held just 38% of manager positions, while men held 62%.” This huge gap at the bottom of the career ladder feeds into growing disparity higher up. There are simply not enough women, particularly Black and Latina women, to promote.
In the US, the Covid-19 unemployment rate for Black workers is more than four percentage points higher than for other groups. Black women have suffered particularly. Pre-pandemic they were already less likely to feel they could bring their whole selves to the workplace, more likely to be overlooked for promotion and less likely to feel adequately supported by their managers. Covid-19 has exacerbated this, with Black women more likely to consider leaving work due to concerns about health and safety, and more likely to consider the death of a loved one as one of the biggest challenges they’ve faced this past year.
McKinsey & Company’s report paints a bleak picture of a growing divide. Progress in addressing workplace inequality is at risk of being completely undone by the many and far-reaching impacts of the pandemic.
Covid-19 and the gender gap
Pre-pandemic progress in addressing inequality had not erased the gender gap. In December 2019 the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported that the gap between the economic participation and opportunities available to men and women was widening. It calculated that it would take 257 years to reach gender parity, and that was before the catastrophic effects of Covid-19. The report listed three key reasons for this: a greater percentage of jobs being done by women are being automated, fewer women are entering professions with pronounced wage growth such as technology, and women having less access to capital to start their own businesses. “In cloud computing, just 12% of professionals are women. Similarly, in engineering and data and AI, the numbers are 15% and 26% respectively,” the report stated.
In the UK in 2019, women’s hourly pay was nearly 20% less than men’s, the fourth largest pay gap in Europe. And although equal pay has been a legal requirement since 1970, Sam Smethers, former CEO of gender-equality charity The Fawcett Society, acknowledges that pay discrimination is still rife: “Gender pay gap reporting does not give women the information they need to challenge unequal pay. For that, they need to know what their colleagues earn. Most employers say they don’t have an issue – but unless they have conducted an audit and set up a transparent pay framework, how would they know for sure?” Data on the pay gap wasn’t collected in 2020 due to the pandemic but given the widely reported economic impact of Covid-19 on women, it seems fair to assume the gap has grown.
One of the reasons for the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on working women is that the industries women are typically employed in, such as hospitality, retail, travel and beauty, have been the most impacted. These sectors also offer less secure and less well-paid work. Furthermore, the persistent view of domestic chores as women’s work, means women spend on average two hours a day more than men performing unpaid work at home. According to the WEF: “There is no country where men spend the same amount of time on unpaid work as women. In countries where the ratio is lowest, it is still 2:1.”
The consequences of caring
As the rapid spread of Covid-19 closed schools and offices and kept us all at home, an increasing share of unpaid labour fell to women. They’ve had to juggle remote working, childcare, home-schooling and caring responsibilities for elderly and unwell relatives, as well as increasing levels of housework, cooking and shopping. Deloitte surveyed 400 women across nine countries at different stages of their careers. A total of 65% said they now have more responsibility for household chores, while 48% of women said they now carry 75% of the burden of caregiving responsibilities, nearly triple what it was before Covid-19.
New York magazine’s online The Cut section has just released a collection of stories under the title, All Work No Pay, chronicling the impacts of the virus on women in America. On trying to balance the double burden of paid and unpaid work, one single mother explained: “Your job doesn’t understand that you have kids, and your kids don’t understand that you have a job.” Another said: “I have essentially dropped out of the workforce and been absorbed into housework and caring for my children, where there are no wages, no protections, no upward path, just a repetitive circle. I am by no means alone.” And the McKinsey & Company report found that Latina and Black mothers are suffering most of all. Not only are they more likely to be the family’s sole breadwinner, but Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely than white mothers to be responsible for all childcare and housework, and Black mothers are twice as likely. It’s a depressing picture.
Sadly, this is not just a temporary challenge. Ariane Hegewisch, lead of the Employment and Earnings programme at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the US, told the BBC: “People are very afraid that this is going to do long-term damage to the childcare infrastructure.” The knock-on effects of the pandemic on health, education and other infrastructure are set to considerably slow down the return to pre-pandemic (and far from perfect) levels of employment equality for women.
All women are affected
Mothers are not the only women who’ve been affected. Female entrepreneurs are statistically more likely to run businesses in sectors that have been impacted most by Covid-19, such as the service industry. A study in the US found that women, having typically started their business with less capital, receive 3% of business investment despite representing 40% of entrepreneurs, and that they are also less likely to have the financial reserves needed to weather such a crisis. However, this has played to the advantage of some. Women are more likely to operate a one-woman business, given their lack of cash, which has left them with the agility needed to pivot their businesses to survive.
Women higher up in the corporate world have also been affected. McKinsey & Company found that “41% of senior-level men reported feeling exhausted, compared to 54% of senior-level women”, and that senior-level women are “significantly more likely than their male peers to consider dropping their hours or dropping out of the workforce because of the burnout.”
The double-edged sword of remote working
The move to remote work, for women in jobs where that is possible, has been both a blessing and a curse. The flexibility of remote work means women have been more able to stay in work. However, balancing a job with caring and home-schooling responsibilities places a huge amount of pressure on working mothers. And the pressure to be “always on” is felt much more by women than men, and they are also worried about being seen to be “slacking” or having the quality of their work judged more harshly when they have to manage work around other responsibilities.
If remote working continues, it will need to be accompanied with a culture shift away from presenteeism. Women are more likely to opt for remote working to manage childcare and other responsibilities. If offices once again become male-dominated, the invisible working women are likely not to be given the same opportunities to contribute and progress as their physically present male colleagues.
Yet remote working also offers an opportunity to close the gap. “Offering all jobs as flexible would remove the barriers faced by women who are more likely to have to negotiate flexible working or accept part-time jobs that are often low-paid,” an Equality and Human Rights Commission spokesperson told The Independent.
The future of equality and economic prosperity
The World Economic Forum, in its 2021 Global Risks Report, revealed that “70% of working women across nine of the world’s largest economies believe their careers will be slowed by the pandemic’s disruption”.
According to The International Labour Organization, “previous crises offer some cautionary lessons for the current one. They illustrate that when jobs are scarce, women are denied economic opportunity and security relative to men.” While Martha Gimbel, a labour economist at the non-profit initiative Schmidt Futures, explained: “The problem is that we have a lot of evidence that when you take time out of the labour force, it can be very difficult to get back in…And the other aspect of this is you are not then making progress in your career. You are not getting promoted. You are not building skills and experience that will cause future employers to pay you more money.”
The solution to this dramatic divide is multifaceted. Both the World Economic Forum and Deloitte make recommendations in their reports, including: equipping women with the skills to take advantages of the employment opportunities generated by the Fourth Industrial Revolution; creating learning and development opportunities that fit within employees’ daily lives; ensuring that diversity and inclusion remains a number-one priority in all elements of business; and making sure that flexible working – not just remote working – becomes the norm for both men and women.