By Krissie Ferris, Research Analyst, Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions, and Shivani Maitra, Partner, Human Capital, Life Sciences and Health Care
Monday 8th March was International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marked a call to action for accelerating women's equality.1 It also recognised that while the COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on society as a whole, its impact has increased a number of pre-existing gender inequalities. Specifically, research suggests women are twice as likely as men to have lost their jobs, more likely to have been furloughed and have also been required to take on additional caring responsibilities.2 Women are also more likely work in industries that have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.3 The theme of this year’s IWD is #ChooseToChallenge and in this week’s blog we explore how the voice of women can be used to challenge work and employment inequalities and create a fairer society.
The pandemic’s impact on women’s employment and job security
In April 2020, a United Nations Policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on women, highlighted emerging evidence that women’s economic and productive lives would be affected disproportionately and differently from men. It noted that across the globe, women: earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector, have less access to social protections and make up 90 per cent of single-parent households. Consequently, women’s capacity to absorb economic shocks is much less than that of men.4
The impact of the pandemic on women in the UK
While women’s role in the economy has undergone a wholesale transformation since the 1970s, with more women in work and more able to balance a career and a family than ever before, progress has been slow and hard won. It has also required significant political and cross sector leadership and commitment. By November 2020, and the annual ‘International equal pay day’ - the impact of the pandemic on women was becoming clear, exposing the fact that many systemic and cultural problems remain, but also that worsening inequalities risk wiping out the economic progress made by women in recent decades.4
A number of surveys and other research demonstrate that women have borne the burden of the crisis from its outset: they are more likely to work in sectors most affected by the pandemic (such as retail, education, healthcare, tourism and the hospitality industry);5 and more women than men are on furlough across almost every age group, with mothers more likely to have quit or lost their job.6
Deloitte global survey: Understanding the pandemics impact on working women
Between August and September 2020, Deloitte surveyed nearly 400 working women across nine countries, at various levels of seniority and spanning various industries to find out how and to what degree their day-to-day lives have changed and whether they believe these changes will impact their careers. The survey revealed that the circumstances under which women are working and living have changed drastically since the onset of the pandemic, including where and how they work, their daily routines and physical and mental health (see figure 1). Standouts include:
- 82 per cent said their lives had been negatively affected and some 70 per cent believe their career growth may be limited
- 89 per cent said demands on their time and routine had changed (92 per cent negatively)
- 48 per cent said they are now responsible for over 75 per cent of family care duties (compared to 16 per cent before the pandemic)
- 46 per cent feel a need to always be available at work (for example, responding to emails immediately and working out of hours), and just under a quarter fear they will end up having to choose between their personal responsibilities and their careers
- 40 per cent of those experiencing negative shifts in their daily routine say they’re unable to balance their work and life commitments, and almost 40 per cent cite significant consequences to their physical and mental well-being.8
Figure 1. Source: Deloitte Global
On a more positive note, a majority of respondents see potential to progress in their careers in the next year by taking on more responsibility (52 per cent); albeit only 47 per cent anticipate receiving pay increases. Many women remain loyal to their current employers, 32 per cent plan to stay with them for two to five years, and 30 per cent for more than five years. Three in five women, however, question whether they want to progress, considering what they perceive is required to move up in their organisations. Reasons varied, with some identifying pre-existing cultural factors or ways-of-working.9
The survey identified the factors that would best enable women to continue to thrive at work during the pandemic and beyond. While there is no ‘one-size-fits-all approach’, respondents cited a number of actions their employers can take to help them, with notable differences between women with caregiving responsibilities and those without. For example, the latter emphasised wanting more skills-development opportunities (49 per cent compared to 33 per cent when compared to those with caregiving responsibilities). Working mothers, on the other hand, were more focused on better benefits, such as sick leave or parental leave (49 per cent compared to 33 per cent).10
Actions that employers should consider
Taking into account the identified barriers to progression and what respondents said would be helpful, the Deloitte research team identified six steps that organisations should consider to achieve gender equality:
Leading with empathy and trust – given the disruption of the pandemic, leaders and managers need to have open and supportive conversations with their teams, including regular and deliberate check-ins with leaders who genuinely want to know if their employees are okay, this can build trust among employers and employees. It can also help leaders understand and respond to the short-term constraints facing employees.
Promote networking, mentorship and sponsorship –in a way and at times that accommodate different schedules and needs. Nearly half of respondents cited the availability of leadership, mentoring, networking, and sponsorship opportunities as beneficial to their careers. These resources can be meaningful platforms for career growth.
Create learning opportunities that fit within your employees’ daily lives – while respondents were keen to progress in their careers and take on more responsibilities, professional development courses may feel out of reach to many given a third of women currently feel unable to balance their work and life commitments. Employers should therefore introduce creative approaches to learning, enabling employees to access the expertise and support they need in flexible and practical ways.
Ensure that reward, succession and promotion processes address unconscious bias - more than half of respondents said the most beneficial actions their organisations could take to support them is to promote them or give them pay raises. Including looking at contribution in different ways, while addressing the risk of unconscious bias.
Make diversity, respect, and inclusion non-negotiables – and part of every company’s culture (30 per cent of respondents cited non-inclusive behaviours — such as micro-aggressions and exclusion from meetings and projects — as reasons why they question whether they want to progress within their organisation. This needs to be addressed head-on through clear messaging, training, and action.
Conclusion – Women and the future of work
While many lessons are emerging from the pandemic, it is likely to be a number of years before we will understand the full ramifications. What we know so far is that the right technology can help us to work effectively in new ways and enjoy more flexibility. However, it has also exacerbated important gender inequalities and the need for targeted support to help women who are unemployed, and empower women who are in the workforce to progress. Failing to get a grip on the challenges of today, risks losing the progress achieved over the last few decades, with women paying a high price. While governments, unions and employers acknowledge the emerging challenges, the actionable steps highlighted above could help address gender inequality and enable employers to take proactive, positive steps to support women, and ultimately help the economy thrive.
8 Deloitte Global, Understanding the pandemic’s impact on working women, 2020.