By Michele Ruiz
As the economy emerges from Covid-19 shutdowns and restrictions and businesses start to bring back employees and resume hiring, it is critical that there is increased vigilance to ensure that women in the workforce are not unfairly punished professionally or economically for facing the unique challenges of the pandemic. At stake is not only the economic progress of women, but the financial viability of the millions of employers who depend on their critical expertise and labor contribution.
Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted women. When Covid-19 began last March, women held more jobs than men for the first time since 2010. One year later, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women lost one million more jobs than men, including stunningly all 156,000 job losses in December 2020. According to a McKinsey & Co report, women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses. Some economists are predicting this pandemic may set women back by a whole generation.
This is a problem for many companies that have worked hard to hire, retain, and promote women in their organizations in recent years. And when you consider that working women contribute nearly $8 trillion to the annual GDP, this is a national crisis that will take meaningful action from all of us to address.
Caregiving needs and stereotypes adversely impact women
So how did unconscious bias lead to more workforce issues for women? For starters, Covid-19 created a near impossible challenge that highlighted how caregiving responsibility fuels inequality. One reason for this is that the pandemic has increased the burden of unpaid care for children, the elderly, and the sick, which is disproportionately taken on by women. Not to mention, it is now very clear that remote learning put a tremendous burden on women, who also took on the role of teachers and tutors. Suddenly their responsibilities included supervising children closely to ensure they kept up with their classes and schoolwork.
Numerous kinds of gender biases kick in under normal circumstances, and they have been amplified recently for many women: maternal bias, parental bias, bias in performance reviews and project assignments. Managers may be overconfident in their capacity to make impartial judgements and not realize they hold unconscious gender stereotypes. Whether they realize it or not, managers often see women as the family caretakers first and perpetuate the male “think-manager-think-male” perspective—especially in organizations where the majority of senior leadership positions are held by men.
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Women are more likely to work a part-time schedule to find family balance. They are often the first phone call from school when their child is sick. While many men handle these responsibilities too, societal bias assumes women will carry the personal load. Gender roles like this have not disappeared just because women have established their place in the workforce, whether serving as CEO, treating patients in the ER, or waiting tables. Women are often performing a balancing act of sorts. To do it successfully takes commitment, determination, sacrifice, and creativity—all strengths employers should appreciate. Still, this reality puts women at a perceived disadvantage.
In addition to these basic gender stereotypes, more women than men, especially Black and Latina women, work in those industries hardest hit by Covid: hospitality, travel and tourism, and retail. Combine this with home schooling, no daycare, and no home assistance for elderly parents and you have the perfect storm. Many of these frontline jobs do not offer benefits such as paid time off and cannot be performed remotely, therefore forcing tough decisions for many families and single mothers: care for the family or show up at work?
Since many employers can’t afford to keep a full staff, and women are taking leave to stay home and care for their families, they are often the first furloughed or laid off. It would be a big mistake, however, to assume that only women in less-skilled jobs have been gravely impacted. Women in professional roles—such as attorneys, physicians, and executives—have also been put under tremendous strain. They often face long hours and high-stress work, only to confront all the same family demands as soon as they arrive home.
Women also confront a new gender equality problem related to the pay gap. According to a recent study entitled the State of Gender Pay Gap 2020, last year women earned 81 cents to every dollar earned by their male counterparts. The study also reported that women often incur a pay penalty after returning to work after a significant absence, earning 7% less on average than men in the same position. Since many women needed to leave jobs to care for children during the pandemic, it will be exceedingly difficult for some qualified women re-entering the workforce to achieve job offers and negotiate higher salaries.
Mitigating against gender bias post Covid
So, how can employers ensure they do not make a bad situation worse and undo years of progress by negatively impacting women as we get back to work? The first step is to do something! It seems obvious, but the cost of inaction is too high to not take some measures against gender inequality. Not to mention, your female employees will appreciate the efforts to improve gender equality in the company.
Here are a few specific ideas outlined in a Harvard Business School article entitled “Don’t Let the Pandemic Set Back Gender Equality:”
- Track the data: Review what has occurred at your company over the last year during the Covid-19 pandemic. Did more women leave due to issues at home? Did you unintentionally furlough more women than men? When hiring, are you maintaining gender equality in terms of title and pay? Answering these questions and offering employees a gender bias assessment and training to mitigate against it will help you avoid gender inequality post Covid.
- Create and maintain flexible work schedules: The pandemic proved to all of us that working from home and having a flexible schedule to ensure work/life balance is possible and often productive. As we emerge from Covid, maintain such policies to ensure women aren’t unfairly punished by the perception or reality that they need more work/life balance than men.
- Listen: Create a work environment where all your employees and especially women can openly discuss issues they have with “unpaid care” and other challenges. Let them know that you understand and empathize with them, and they will not be penalized for sharing thoughts about how these challenges are affecting them.
- Provide health and wellness resources: Now more than ever, companies should provide for the mental and physical health and wellness of their female employees. The effects of the pandemic and its impact on female workers will be here for the foreseeable future and must be addressed.
Gender equality could boost the global economy
One thing is for certain, and that is allowing gender inequality to impact the workforce post Covid will have a detrimental impact on the economy in general. The same McKinsey study mentioned above estimates that if the current “gender regressive” situation is not addressed, global GDP could be $1 trillion lower by 2030; conversely, if measures are taken, global GDP could improve by $13 trillion by 2030. So, let’s take action for the benefit of women—and we will all benefit.
About the Author
Michele Ruiz is a former Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and CEO of BiasSync, a science-based technology platform to measure, assess, train, and mitigate unconscious bias in the workplace. See Michele’s articles and full bio at AllBusiness.com and follow her on Twitter @MicheleRuiz01.
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This article was originally published on AllBusiness.com.