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The true impact of COVID-19 on women in the workplace

By almost every measure women are being disproportionately impacted by the global pandemic – how can CEOs protect gender progress in the workplace from sliding backwards?

women in the workplace

The British billionaire Sir Philip Green, Chair of the retail conglomerate that includes Topshop and Miss Selfridge, once said that, “It’s all about quality of life and finding a happy balance between work and friends and family.” Clearly, the knighted businessman couldn’t have predicted just how much a global pandemic would throw any notion of work–life balance completely out of the locked-down window.

While men and women around the world have experienced significant repercussions of the pandemic, the research is clear that women are bearing the brunt of the impact. A McKinsey & Company report from July found that across the US and India, female job loss rates due to COVID-19 are 1.8 times higher than male job loss rates.

Unlike previous recessions where predominately male industries, like manufacturing, were hardest hit, this crisis has shut down sectors that are highly feminised, such as retail, accommodation, hospitality, arts and recreation, and beauty and hair services.

“COVID-19 has hit women particularly hard in terms of job losses, increased care responsibilities at home, and heavy representation among low-wage workers on the front lines,” says Kristina Durante, Research Director for the Center for Women in Business at Rutgers Business School in the US.

“The burden of care issue means that whether women are losing jobs or keeping jobs, the amount of work that they have to do that is unpaid has shot through the roof.” – Anita Bhatia

“In our survey from May 2020, men reported their contribution to unpaid household labour during the pandemic to be 48% of all the work and women reported their contribution to be 66%,” continues Durante.

Data from US Census Bureau in July reported that women are nearly three times more likely than men to not be working due to COVID-19-related childcare needs, while the annual Women in the Workplace 2020 study from LeanIn.Org in September 2020 revealed that women with children were more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for a majority of housework and child care amid the pandemic. The ‘double shift’ of full-time work and unpaid work at home has now increased for women and become increasingly unmanageable.

“Women have been carrying the world on their shoulders through this pandemic,” laments Anita Bhatia, Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women. “The burden of care issue means that whether women are losing jobs or keeping jobs, the amount of work that they have to do that is unpaid has shot through the roof because of the gendered roles that women have in society. It may not be employment, but it is work, and it requires compensation.”

One step forward…


While the report revealed that from 2015–2020, the overall share of women in C-suite positions grew from 17% to 21%, other results suggested that even these small gains could be lost due to the crisis.

An alarming 25% of women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce because of the pandemic, with 75% of senior-level women reporting ‘burnout’ as the main reason. This is the first time in the report’s six-year history that the rate has been higher than it is for men – the number is usually 15% for both men and women.

“A lot of women may not go back to the labour force in the same numbers as they were before COVID-19,” says Bhatia. “Plus, more girls are falling out of school because of the pandemic, and the issue of having to stay home and take care of children is also going to disrupt the flow of women into the workforce.”

Coupled with the issue of the ‘broken rung’ – where women are less likely to be promoted from entry-level to management positions than men – the impacts of COVID-19 could set women’s progress in the workplace, especially into senior leadership positions, back years, if not decades.

Lessening the burden on women


Losing women in leadership positions will send many companies backwards, regarding both business results as well as issues of diversity. Women in senior leadership positions are more likely to take a public stand on gender equality (61%) and racial equality (53%) compared to their male peers (42% and 40% respectively). So what can companies do to limit the impact of COVID-19 on working women?

“CEOs need to speak up about the unpaid care burden, acknowledge it as a problem and then come up with some specific company policies to lessen that burden, including reaching out to male colleagues,” advocates Bhatia. “Employers need to be okay, not just with flexible working arrangements, but with flexible hours. They need to think about the childcare burden. And employers can role model by giving parental leave and talking about men having to do their fair share.”

Durante agrees, and believes the pandemic could actually be the opportunity that working women have been waiting for. “One positive outcome of the COVID-19 lockdown is that both men and women are forced to work from home,” she says. “This has meant that men have a front row seat to the amount of unpaid labour needed to run a household, which is also broadcast straight into every virtual boardroom. Those in the C-suite must reimagine the future of work to include and encourage the continued flexibility of work schedules.”

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