The pandemic has had a profound effect on most workplaces with many people now working remotely. While this is seen widely as a good thing and it is, we need to be aware that not everyone wins in this scenario. In this article I want to focus specifically on the impact of the pandemic and of remote working on women.
Women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses. One reason for this greater effect on women is that the virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried by women.
Good aspects for women
Remote working has delivered some good benefits for women and they are:
· Improved work life balance – more time at home with the family.
· Greater productivity as the long commute is gone, with no travel costs.
· More peace and quiet and few interruptions at home (hopefully)
· Generally better health due to more exercise, including cycling
· Time to develop the garden to grow edibles and to simply enjoy
· No work lunches to prepare of pack
Bad aspects for women
There are bad aspects for women too and they are:
· Pressure on women to do everything while still holding down a full-time job – including providing childcare, home schooling, shopping, cooking and keeping house.
· No escape from the house in situations of domestic violence
· Isolation from friends and wider support network (wider family network, work colleagues, neighbours).
· The potential for poor mental health outcomes because women have no one to talk to.
· Even single women without caring responsibilities, who live and work alone, may experience isolation and loneliness if their em0loyer does not provide appropriate support regularly.
Potentially negative work issues emerging
While these are bad enough there are new work issues that are emerging for women and some are extremely negative and they are:
· Some are losing their jobs completely e.g. office cleaners and retail assistants
· Some are being demoted because rightly or wrongly they are being perceived as not being as loyal as they were (due to the pressure at home)
· Some have decided to leave because they simply cannot carry this burden anymore.
- Some are leaving when the company withdraws remote working as an option or they will leave when the first opportunity comes along.
Returning to work, at the same level, even if they want to in a few years, could be impossible as they will have a gap in experience, they may not be up to speed with the technology anymore etc. These issues and more will make it more difficult for them to come back at all as the organisation will have moved on.
While remote working is ok up to a point, a planned return to the office does not mean that all will be as it was. Due to childcare shortages and other caring duties that women have responsibility for, many women will decide to stay at home remote working. However it is expected that many of the men, currently remote working, will decide to come back into the office, for all sorts of reasons, not least to gain some peace and quiet.
Studies are telling us that if women do not go back in, they will not be visible, they will be forgotten about, their work even if it is of high qualify may not be recognised or acknowledged and most of all they will not necessarily be in the rooms where key decisions are being made. Those that are physically present will be there to reap the greatest rewards.
As a result it is anticipated that women may miss out on promotions, opportunities to be mentored, to join challenging projects and for their value to be recognised.
Some of the gains we have made in terms of gender balance at work, at management and at senior levels may go backwards.
Ultimately the company may lose irreplaceable female talent because they are unseen, unrewarded and uncatered for.
How to remedy this
Employers who are committed to gender equality and equal pay and conditions for women have to re-double their efforts to support women both in work and those working remotely.
Epstein Gluck, Veteran employment attorney in US, stresses that managers should make a point of talking with their work teams about mental health issues. “I think authentic communication destigmatizes the whole idea of mental health as a ‘problem,’ reframes it as a workplace challenge, and presents an opportunity for creative and even innovative ways for people to work together.”
Zoom meetings should not focus fully on the work, they should begin with the Team leader checking in with everyone asking how they and their families are and indicating that if anyone wants to call him/her privately later that they are available to chat and to help. Some women going into a conversation with their boss later about not being able to get suitable childcare worry that their chat may result in them dismissed.
Companies who have existing occupational health supports or Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) should remind everyone that they exist and how to access them confidentially if needs be. Organisations could consider allowing employees at home and at the workplace to access online counselling provided by competent counsellors. Some companies are offering paid subscriptions to online yoga classes or relaxation sessions. Employers could also consider making available paid or unpaid leave to deal with family emergencies, long term illnesses of a child or elderly relative without it interfering with holiday or sick pay entitlements.
I know of one MD of an Irish Company who personally calls all 80+ employees every fortnight to check in to see that they are ok. Larger companies can ensure that this happens too if they delegate this task down to departmental heads and supervisors. This is care in reality. The beauty of all these initiatives is that they pay dividends in terms of improving morale, loyalty, retention of skilled employees and productivity.
Even before the coronavirus hit the world, progress toward gender parity had been uneven and large gender gaps remained across the world. Now, there is a risk that progress could go into reverse. This would not just set back the cause of gender equality but also hold back the global economy. Conversely, taking steps to redress the balance now could improve social and economic outcomes for millions of women globally and help boost economic growth for all.
The evidence from the McKinsey research is clear and I will provide my own summary here.
What is good for women’s equality is also good for the economy and society as a whole. Ireland and the rest of the world has three choices:
1. act now to remove barriers to women participating in the workforce and having a bigger role in society and reap the economic and social benefits that come from that or
2. delay and still benefit, but to a substantially lesser degree or
3. allow the disappointing status quo to prevail and slide backwards, leaving massive economic opportunity on the table and negatively affecting the lives of millions of women.
Women in Ireland have come really far in 100 years. Yet in 2021 we do not have parity of pay (the gender pay gap is currently 14.4%), we have never had a female Taoiseach and our female TDs only represent 22% of the full Oireachtas. We still have a long way to go so we should all strive not to let the pandemic and specifically remote working to send us, and the women of the world backwards.
McKinsey Report, July 2020 – COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects
EHS Today, March 2021 – Employers Need to Address Women’s Mental Health
Eurostat Factsheet on Equal pay – statistics on gender pay gap
Ivana Bacik website: www.ivanabacik.com/womeninpolitics/ – statistics on women in the Dail.