The pandemic continues to rage globally, with the number of deaths increasing significantly every day. No one has been unaffected, but the impact is not equally distributed. The pandemic has both exposed and worsened systemic inequities. This must be acknowledged, to reduce backsliding on any progress made in recent years regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.
In this post, we’ll take a look at how the economic impact of the pandemic differs by gender. While gender comes in many forms, the data currently available do not include analysis for transgender or nonbinary populations. Therefore, we will use a gender binary for this post, while acknowledging that this is insufficient.
The impact on women in the workplace: by the numbers
What we know so far is that globally, women’s job loss rate is about 1.8 times that of men’s job loss due to the pandemic.
In the US specifically, unemployment data shows that between February and June of 2020, 9.5% of jobs were lost, but 11.2% of women lost their jobs, compared to 7.9% of men. People of color, senior women, people with disabilities, and parents (especially mothers) were more likely to be without work. Women who intersect with one or more of these marginalized groups were impacted even more.
More recent data shows that of all 140,000 jobs lost in December 2020, 100%—all 140,000—belonged to women.
Research is still unfolding as to the causes of the widening gender inequality in the workplace, but there are a few preliminary insights.
Unpaid household and childcare labor
Globally, women do the vast majority of unpaid household and childcare work. As many schools remain closed, parents have the new responsibility of becoming a schoolteacher and/or long-distance learning facilitator. These new tasks are falling much more often on women’s shoulders. UN Women found that the number of unpaid hours women are spending on childcare globally has risen from 26 to 31 hours per week on average, nearly a full time (unpaid) job. Men’s hours increased from 20 to 24.
Additionally, while fathers have been more likely to reduce their hours at work, mothers more often leave their jobs completely, causing greater career impacts.
Women are more likely to work in industries that are harder hit by the pandemic, such as retail, accommodation, and foodservice. In contrast, more men are employed in industries less impacted, like real estate, business, and administration. Men also hold a majority of C-Suite and executive-level positions that are less likely to be affected by furloughs or a reduction in force. While this varies by country, McKinsey researchers found that overall, women’s jobs are 19% more at risk than men’s jobs.
While women also hold the majority of jobs in the health care sector, where their income is secure, they are three times more likely to contract Covid-19 than their male counterparts. This could be because they are more often in caretaking roles with significant patient contact.
Relatedly, due to the gender pay gap, women in the workplace are paid less than men on average. This means that, if a heterosexual couple needs to decide who must leave their job to care for the children, it stands to reason that women are more likely to do so, so that the family can stay afloat financially.
Gender-based domestic violence rates have dramatically increased during the pandemic, as well as mental health issues in women. A global study found that three times as many women as men reported that their mental health had worsened during the pandemic. This was directly linked to the overload of unpaid household and childcare labor, financial strain, and difficulty accessing healthcare.
While domestic violence and mental health are often treated as separate from workplace concerns, they are often contributing factors to women leaving the workplace or needing time off work.
The role of government policy
Most researchers agree that policy designed to actively counter gender inequity is crucial. Importantly, women need to be leaders in designing the policy—not just the beneficiaries. Women have also been outperforming men when leading national responses to the pandemic. As UN Women reported: “In countries with women at the helm, confirmed deaths from Covid-19 are six times lower, partly due to these leaders’ faster response to the pandemic and greater emphasis on social and environmental well-being over time.”
UN Women, in their research report on the gendered impacts of the pandemic, advocate for three types of policy:
First, social systems that are gender-responsive. This means that social safety nets cannot be gender-blind and must take into account that different demographics are not equally impacted. Second, access to affordable, reliable childcare. Third, intentional policy to correct long-standing gender inequities throughout society. McKinsey researchers also argue that this is a vital opportunity to implement corrective policy. In fact, their analysis demonstrates that if we do not do so, the global GDP stands to lose more than one trillion dollars, and gender equity will lose decades of progress.
How business can reduce the pandemic's impact on women in the workplace
Despite the scale of these issues, there are many steps you can take at a business level to make sure you are supporting women. First, consider asking your employees in an anonymous survey what kind of support they need. The answers may surprise you. Follow up every few months, as needs will likely shift as the pandemic evolves.
Second, analyze your HR data by demographics, looking for gender inequality in the workplace, and correct any disparities, including in your performance review processes. This is especially critical if you are laying off workers.
Third, consider adapting annual goals and performance markers to take into account the new reality and additional stressors workers face. Focus on sustainability and preventing burnout.
Finally, provide or update your company benefits for caretaking, and make sure they are accessible for all employees. This could be flexible work hours, working from home, discounts for childcare, etc.
While correcting these widening inequities may seem overwhelming, it is imperative that we take action, especially in countries where government support is lacking or inequitable. Consider where you and your organization have the power to make positive change, and take a step in that direction.