The past several decades have seen much progress being made toward achieving gender equality and shifting societal expectations. Women have increased representation in politics, more economic opportunities, and access to better education and healthcare in many countries across the globe. The United Nations even came together in 2015 to set the ambitious target of achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls everywhere by 2030. But just over five years later, large gender gaps remain, and it has become apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a regressive effect on gender equality. Decades of improvement may be lost, as progress stalls and women find their place in the work force more at risk. In early 2020, the World Economic Forum predicted it would take 100 years to close the global gender gap, but it is expected to take even longer now with the setbacks from the pandemic.
Challenges Facing Women in the Workplace: Gender Bias, Stereotypes, & Inequality
Across the world, women hold less secure jobs, earn less income, see more limited career growth, and have fewer social and legal protections. Failure to address these challenges has a snowball effect on the lives of women for years to come.
Occupation Clusters & Under-Representation
There are inherent beliefs that men are better equipped to handle certain jobs, which most of the time are the positions that pay the best. Women are viewed as less capable of performing work tasks at an acceptable level and thus excluded from entire industries or levels of management. For this reason, they often end up in what is referred to as “pink-collar jobs” – fields considered to be ‘women’s work’, such as nursing, social work, teaching, childcare, and administration. These are also all jobs that are often underpaid and provide paltry benefits.
Lack of Employment Equality
According to research from the World Bank, only six countries in the world grant women the same legal work rights as men (Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden). In fact, most economies only give women about 75% of the rights of men, and only a decade ago, not a single country gave women and men equal legal rights.
With regards to income, in 2020, women earned 81 cents for every dollar earned by men, and only 11% of those earning more than $100,000 per year are female employees. If women were to earn as much as men, the global economy could be enriched by approximately $160 trillion. Women also experience greater income insecurity. Even now during the pandemic, 25% of women expect a decline in their income, compared to just 16% of men.
The overall mindset of society determines the value of women vs men and significantly impacts gender balance. Many surveys over the years have documented the shifts in men’s attitudes towards women, but there is still push-back (for example, in a Pew Research Center report, 30% of men indicate women’s gains have come at the expense of men). Social stereotypes nurture discrimination, and this type of mindset can delay significant change regarding gender equality. And with respect to domestic responsibilities, traditional values continue to dominate.
The Amplifying Impacts of the Pandemic
As UN Women notes, “The impacts of crises are never gender-neutral, and COVID-19 is no exception.” As mentioned earlier, domestic responsibilities have largely fallen on women, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this issue. Studies have found that during COVID, in general, the male contribution has remained the same, while women have picked up the additional burdens of housework and dependent care. Research from the United Nations suggests that 25 years of progress in this area could be lost within the year. Prior to the pandemic, for every one hour of domestic work done by men, three hours was done by women (who averaged over 4 hours per day); now the numbers sit at a 1:6 ratio. Further, a study from USA Today found that in 2020, women accounted for 84% of workers who missed work due to issues with child care — a five year high. While men also missed work to care for kids, their share of the burden actually decreased.
It is clear that economic disruption from the pandemic has disproportionately burdened women with unpaid care. With the pandemic shutting down day cares and schools and reducing the availability of outside help, women are picking up the responsibility of childcare, schooling, and even caring for sick or elderly family members. Working mothers are finding themselves having to balance full-time employment with increased domestic responsibility.
These existing gender inequalities and societal norms have made women more vulnerable to pandemic-related economic effects. With increased domestic demands, women are forced to reduce their working hours or stop working altogether. Fast Company reports that 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely since COVID quarantines began. Indeed, women’s participation rate in the labor market continues to fall faster than for men. Per McKinsey, while women make up 39% of global employment, they account for 54% of overall job losses, making their jobs 1.8x more vulnerable to this crisis. And during times of increased unemployment, people tend to revert back to traditional gender roles. Without change, the longer the pandemic continues, the greater the threat to gender equality — including women’s ability to participate in the workforce, advance in their careers, and earn more income.
Steps to Improve Gender Equality in the Workplace
Three key, but by no means small or easy, actions will go a long way in shifting the status quo and improving gender equality in the workplace, particularly as the economy recovers from the effects of the pandemic.
#1: Place Women in Leadership Roles
Today, women are severely underrepresented in leadership positions. Consider the following stats:
- Only 7% of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO (Fortune)
- For every 100 men who are promoted to manager level, only 79 women are promoted (McKinsey)
- Women hold 17% of all global board seats (Catalyst)
While gender balance in numerical terms is a good starting point, it’s even more important to bring gender balance to leadership roles. Actress Frances McDormand perhaps summed it up best when she said, “Women have ideas, and to put those ideas into action, they need a seat at the table.” Historically, women have faced a much higher bar of entry to leadership roles, meaning that they have to meet higher standards and be more qualified in order to earn the same positions as men. Lean In co-founder and CEO Rachel Thomas asserts, “Men are typically hired based on potential and what we believe they can do, while women are typically hired and promoted based on what they’ve already accomplished.” Beyond the oft-cited and proven economic and business benefits of having females in strategic, decision-making roles, female leadership gives other women a voice, an advocate, and a role model, helping to break a vicious cycle of gender-based discrimination.
#2: Close the Gender Pay Gap
Closing the gender pay gap helps in hiring, promoting, and retaining women, ultimately producing more female leaders. And now as the economy struggles to recover, gender equity could play a key role in helping companies bounce back. Research cited by Fast Company suggests that “for every 10% increase in gender equity, there is a 1% to 2% increase in revenue”. Further, closing the gender equity gap could also unlock $2 trillion in economic gains for the US alone. That means companies should pay the same salary, benefits, and bonuses to employees in equivalent positions, regardless of gender.
#3: Adopt a ‘Gender Budgeting’ Mindset
The coronavirus pandemic has provided the opportunity for a ‘cultural reset’ regarding the way we live, work, and play. With the increased care-giving and household responsibilities, families are having to choose whose career comes first, which (in a traditional relationship) usually means the higher-paying man’s job. Without actively working to retain female employees, companies may be losing some of their top talent. That’s where the relatively new concept of ‘gender budgeting’ comes into play. Gender budgeting means taking the time to evaluate every aspect of the company, from recruiting and performance review practices to dress code and work flexibility policies to availability of mental wellness and childcare services. The purpose is to ensure the needs of all employees are accounted for and that each individual has access to the same opportunities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had negative economic and social consequences for women. But we are at a pivotal time in history where we have the opportunity to set precedence for the future and to change the narrative of what a strong, effective leader looks like. As McKinsey says, “What is good for gender equality is good for the economy and society as well.”