Unequal Competition: How fast can we heal the pandemic’s damage to women’s careers?

19 May 2021

Unequal Competition: How fast can we heal the pandemic’s damage to women’s careers?

The pandemic critically set back women’s equality of opportunity, but it is not the only indicator that organisations must redouble efforts to close the gender balance.

The pandemic was a major setback for pre-existing efforts to close the gender gap in the workplace. Increasing evidence shows that while both men and women were severely affected, it was women who experienced a larger impact, as detailed in the WEF Global Gender Gap Report of 2021.

Key findings within the report show women are more frequently employed in the hardest-hit sectors that were directly disrupted by lockdown and social distancing measures. So, they were effectively hit twice: by higher unemployment rates and a slower re-entry into employment. Subsequently, combined with additional household and childcare responsibilities, more women were pressured to opt out of the workforce than men. Evidence shows their re-employment has been slower, with lower hiring rates and, importantly, delayed hiring into leadership roles.

There is also evidence that, even if they continued to work, some have had to reduce their working hours at higher rates more than men, and have also pulled back from promotions and leadership roles.

The reasons for this unequal pandemic effect have been well-documented: a greater overlap of work and care responsibilities that was turbocharged by the pandemic.

In our recently launched UK Leadership Diversity Report 2021, we asked leaders whether their organisations have an outreach programme to recruit leadership team members from underrepresented groups, only 39% said 'yes' when it came to recruiting women.

Throughout a tumultuous year of pandemic, unrest and unbridled change in many lives, the global need for awareness and action on gender diversity and inclusion within our communities, schools and workplaces is as important now, as it ever has been.

Where are the female technology leaders?

Looking forward to the 99 roles that are consistently growing in demand, grouped into eight distinctive job clusters, only two are at gender parity.

Many show a severe under-representation of women. They include roles that remind us of the continuing importance of human interaction in the new economy, including Marketing, Sales, People and Culture, and Content Production. Importantly too, women are also less likely to be found in roles which support the development of emerging technologies such as Cloud Computing, Engineering, Data and AI.

Glass ceiling still unbroken

In addition, the limited presence of women in senior roles shows a persistent ‘glass ceiling’ is still in place, even in some of the most advanced economies. For instance, in the United States, women are in just 42% of senior and managerial positions; in the United Kingdom, 36.8%; in Sweden, 40%; in France, 34.6%; in Germany, 29%; in Italy and the Netherlands, 27%; in Korea, 15.6%; and in Japan, 14.7%.

The business and ethical case for inclusion and diversity is unequivocal. Targets are powerful in measuring success and progress. They also demonstrate an organisations’ long-term commitment to attracting and retaining more diverse talent. Depending on the rate of employee turnover, it takes organisations time to redress imbalances. The focus of an organisations’ leadership must be sustained over time and supported by specific initiatives, to embed change deep into the culture of an organisation. 

Gender gaps in remuneration must be closed. Fast. And women's participation in the labour force requires flexible arrangements or alternative ways of working that really do support diversity. (Provision of childcare support is key, as mentioned above.)

Finally, we must advance more women into management and leadership. Setting real targets for women in leadership on a government and business level, then monitoring and publicising the results, is a start. But it is best practices that make significant and lasting gains. 

If companies don’t want to lose precious talent, they should be prepared to think a little differently in order to adapt. This will be critical in making up ground lost during the pandemic to prevent long-term scarring in the labour market.

Special measures to counter pandemic’s impact

With particular regard to the pandemic and its effects on gender parity, the first action is to recognize how women are being affected, and plan policy accordingly.

AS HBR points out, it might mean setting more realistic expectations and re-evaluating performance criteria, and then making sure that those productivity expectations are properly communicated to all levels of the organisation.

A pandemic leave of absence for an agreed period might help someone who is contemplating leaving to reconsider. Job sharing is another option, perhaps with someone having similar challenges who can still put in the hours. Also, not penalizing those who have been affected by the pandemic is wise: don’t regard gaps in a CV as suspicious, but unavoidable.

Truly far-sighted companies might well include as mandatory on their short lists of candidates those women who have been out of work. At least two women per list too, if possible, since that has been proven to give the women on the list a better chance to be regarded equally with men.

Returning to work requires support

Returning to work for women who have had to take a pandemic ‘gap year’, or even longer, must be handled thoughtfully, with the use of return -to-work programmes and gender-sensitive recovery strategies that support women returnees’ needs.

Of course, as change comes so rapidly, even a year out of the workplace requires good reskilling programmes, either to keep pace with the demands of a roles, or to move to a new one. Without concerted efforts, companies run the risk of losing women in leadership, not to mention future women leaders. Another potential set-back on the road toward gender diversity.

Building cultures to do good now, and in the future

All the same, this crisis also represents an opportunity. Build a more flexible and empathetic workplace and you’ll retain those most affected by today’s crises. You’ll be building a culture in which women, and other under-represented groups, have equal opportunity to achieve their potential and boost the performance of the organisation long-term. Read our guide for female talent on how to be Board ready.

Men have an important role too; by stepping up in the home to take on more of the work, for one thing. But men must make sure women have a place at the top table when corporate and national strategies and policies and initiatives are created to build back better. Without women’s presence to represent women’s needs, the pandemic will set us back far more than it needs to.