What Women Want (at Work) and the She-Cession

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Behind every setback, an opportunity can be found. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a chain reaction of setbacks for women around the world, it’s also provided an opportunity to raise awareness about gender inequality in the labour market. New global research from ManpowerGroup sheds light on this, outlining how women’s career trajectories have been disproportionately impacted by COVID and why the risk of a “She-Cession” is real.

It’s time to advance the global conversation about why a gender-aware response to COVID is necessary. Here’s why:

Equality maker or breaker? How the crisis impacts women

Men may have a higher COVID-19 fatality rate, but data indicates that women will bear the longer-term consequences of the economic and social crisis. With women’s employment 19% more at risk during the pandemic compared to men’s, the dangers of occupational segregation and the informal economy have been exposed like never before.

Not only are women over-represented in many of the sectors most impacted by COVID-19 – e.g. retail, hospitality, entertainment and travel – but they’re also more likely to work in the informal economy. This means women are far likelier to have lost their livelihood, lost income or experienced a drop in working hours.

The figures look a little different from country to country but tell a consistent global story. During the first month of the pandemic, the 740 million women who work in the informal economy lost an average of 60% of their income. This figure swelled to 81% in sub‑Saharan Africa and Latin America and 70% in Europe and Central Asia, while women workers in Asia and the Pacific reported a 22% reduction in income.

WFH may not be working for women

Working from home is good for women, right? Not so fast.

“It’s tempting to think that flexible work options will be a universal big equaliser for women,” says ManpowerGroup Chief Talent Scientist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. “Not always. Men are more likely to want to use the office for networking; women for collaborating and getting work done. Working from home could accelerate underlying inequality by further reducing opportunities for face-to-face networking.”

Our research found that women and men have dramatically differing attitudes about working from home and returning to a physical office post-pandemic. Women said they are more concerned about going back to the workplace and more appreciative of the office as a means of separating work from home. Meanwhile, men said they are more likely to want to be in the physical office for visibility and promotion, and said they feel relieved, happy and confident about a return to the workplace.

To prepare for a hybrid future that accommodates both remote and in-person workers, employers have to be careful to avoid a two-track workplace: men in the office, women at home, resulting in women missing out on informal networking opportunities and critical assignments. Such disparity could also give rise to a new form of “presenteeism”, whereby employers make assumptions about their employees’ productivity and performance depending on whether they’re physically co-located or working remotely.

Employers can combat this by looking at the effects of remote working by level and whether or not it provides the same career benefits to the entry-level, mid-career, and executive roles. Most important is that employees are evaluated on their output and rewarded for what they actually contribute rather than for the show they put on.

Unpaid domestic work and the parent trap

With more than 1.5 billion children out of school worldwide, many women workers must now double as school teachers and/or caregivers while working from home. Even before the pandemic, women took on the lion’s share of responsibility in caring for loved ones and doing unpaid domestic work. Now, gender equity in the household has grown even more lopsided.

Since the pandemic began, 56% of women globally have increased the time they spend on unpaid care work (compared to 51% of men), and 60% of women report spending an increased amount of time on unpaid domestic work (compared to 54% of men). In the US, 1 in 3 mothers has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career because of COVID-19.

Employers must understand that remote working does not occur in a vacuum and they must build flexibility into roles previously seen as inflexible. By taking active steps to challenge embedded assumptions about the gender-normative roles of mothers and fathers, those norms will be less likely to drive the way managers and colleagues perceive remote working by parents and what they expect of them.

Mind the leader gap

Ostensibly, it’s been a good year for women in positions of power. In May 2020, the number of women running Fortune 500 companies hit a new high (although the fine print will tell you that means only 7% of companies on the 2020 Fortune 500 list are run by women). Meanwhile, women leaders – from New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern to Germany’s Angela Merkel – won praise for their handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

And studies have continued to prove that women are good for business. In fact, companies with the most women officers have financial returns that are 34% better, and demonstrate enhanced productivityshare performance and business results. Before the pandemic, the number of women in senior management roles globally was gradually increasing. In 2019, it had grown to 29%, the highest number ever recorded.

ManpowerGroup research is clear: when it comes to ascending to leadership positions, women aren’t looking for favours, just a level playing field. To accelerate the rise of women in leadership positions, employers can start by putting policies into place that directly address those things that established female leaders have said were the greatest obstacles throughout their career: lack of role models, gendered career paths, and a lack of access to sponsors and influential networks.

2021 finds the workforce at an inflection point and many employers are unsure about what steps they need to take to ensure gender parity within their own organisation. In this new reality, we are partnering with employers to help them commit to paying greater attention to the re-balancing of family care responsibilities and careers, to changing prevailing gender dynamics in the workplace, and to rethinking the way women work, are recognised and rewarded.

Download our Leadership, Skills and the She-Cession – What Next for Progress to Parity? infographic here.