‘A chain is no stronger than its weakest link’. This often-quoted saying has been in circulation since it was first introduced by Thomas Reid in his 1786 treatise “Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man”.
One of the economy’s weakest links exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic was the growing gender inequities in society at large. The gender effect was profound both at home and at work and could potentially be costing society a lot longer-term. If the financial crisis of 2007-2009 led to the loss of mostly traditional male-dominated jobs, the global healthcare crisis disproportionally impacted women forcing many of them out of the workforce. There are three timely questions for companies to ask today.
What are the underlying challenges and causes for the precipitous departure of women from the workforce?
How could the upward momentum be regained?
How to help set the course for a brighter, more inclusive and equitable future?
Understanding the Challenges
The fact that women faced the harshest impact of the pandemic did not come as a surprise. The economists have long sounded the alarm that women’s workforce participation rate has been stagnant in the US since the early 2000s. The pandemic dealt a decisive and long-lasting blow precipitating the downward trajectory. By 2022, only 57% of working-age women in the US were participating in the labour force, down from 59% in pre-pandemic numbers. This brought the total number of women who have left the labour force in the US since February 2020 to more than 2.3 million. Globally, this gap was even wider, especially in the cultures and in families where the traditional gender roles were upheld, and where women continued to take on the majority of additional unpaid work (cleaning, cooking, supporting the family needs).
The pandemic revealed a trifactor challenge to working women worldwide.
Women represent the majority of front-line essential workers Pandemic impacted such female-dominated jobs as food services, retail and hospitality especially harshly. Many of these jobs are being undervalued, underpaid; they provide little stability despite gaining the status of “essential” during the pandemic. Women’s over-representation in these low-skilled fields and their vulnerable employment status, followed by a mass exodus from employment has led to an even bigger gender inequity at work.
Working mothers took on additional educational and child-caring responsibilities with 95% of the economy under the stay-at-home order and schools and daycare centres closed. While the majority of their male counterparts settled into their home offices, women’s workload quadrupled making it impossible for many to hold a “day job”. As we have seen, women exited the labour force in record numbers.
Caregiving for family members and participation in caregiving professions has been traditionally a majority female occupation. According to the US National Institute on Aging, 75% of caregivers are women. In healthcare, 85% of nurses are female. The physical and psychological toll of the pandemic on caregivers is hard to underestimate leading to higher rates of burnouts and mental health impact.
Left unaddressed, the pandemic burden on women threatens the broader economic growth as the Global population (i.e. US population) has shown an unprecedented low gain. With the decline in family formation and the fertility rateprecipitously falling, Western economies are projected to experience “sansdemic” (lack of people as a result of fewer children being born) as well as bigger economic disparities and inequities for generations to come.
Finding the Right Solution is a Marathon
If hybrid work becomes the norm, as many believe, could it be by itself the game-changer women, mothers and caregivers so urgently need? Not so fast. Hybrid work will remain a fix, not the solution. The world designed with working women in mind needs to be responsive, adaptive, and inclusive at the same time. Multiple principles will need to be followed and organizations will need to be flexible, adaptive and inclusive in their own right.
Here is how a company can navigate these challenges and create a work environment that provides a supportive, stable and inclusive environment for women not just to survive but to flourish. We recommend focusing on six employment principles with particular attention to the female employees.
Departure-proof your retention practices. Are you predominantly trying to retain technical talent or younger workers? Prioritize retaining your working mothers and more senior women. Creating flexibility is the key. Eliminate performance reviews, allow for remote working, reduce workloads, introduce (unpaid) sabbaticals, and allow for part-time arrangements. Retaining your women with diverse experiences can have long-lasting positive consequences on the workforce as a whole. Experienced female professionals will serve as role models and mentors to younger female employees ensuring an overall gender balance for years to come.
Adjust your benefits, rewards and incentives. For your working mothers, arrange for day-care facilities and after-school services, provide financial support and time off for caregiving and for looking after sick family members. Do not financially penalize those who temporarily have to scale down their work commitments due to the burdens of added family responsibilities.
Invest in an inclusive workplace experience. Ask what inclusion means to your female employees. Listen to your employees’ needs and understand their stories. Leading the workforce through a pandemic calls for empathy, compassion and support. Make the support and flexibility women require not an exception but the rule of how “things get done around here”.
Put managers of your flexible workforce in the spotlight. Managers need a new mindset and an updated set of guiding principles to be effective people managers. Beware of “out of sight, out of mind” bias. Remember that workers, seeking accommodation and flexibility of remote work due to caregiving and childcare responsibilities, may experience the newly-created “zoom ceiling,” the 21-century “glass ceiling". Train your managers how not to favour those they see every day, learn to manage remote-distributed teams.
Invest in coaching, mentoring and community building. At the company culture level, develop a supportive community culture. Make sure that younger female workers get the mentorship and career coaching support they need; working mothers have a range of benefits available to them to help with family responsibilities and more senior women are celebrated as role models and sponsors for the next generation building their careers.
It is not just about women. Starting with the traditional female roles at work, the benefits of the new way of working should be extended to all employees finding themselves needing flexibility. Paternity leave, for example, still remains an exception rather than the rule.
Organizations that invest in identifying and strengthening their weakest links and creating a “women at work” focused practice will emerge stronger in the future economy. To learn more about ways to create a human-centred workplace experience, focus on humans first and build a more productive, loyal and representative workforce.
This article has originally appeared on Kogan Page's website.