The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has been unsparing in its disproportionate impact on women in the workforce. The pandemic exposed significant gender fault lines that pose an impediment to women seeking to make progress in their careers.
In the early days of the pandemic, researchers from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich were quick to grasp the differential ramifications of COVID-19 by gender. They found that significantly higher rates of women and less educated people were more likely to suffer pandemic-related setbacks as measured by the percentage of newly unemployed women vis-à-vis men, at the time of the study.
Similarly, a study by researchers from Neoma Business School and the Alliance Manchester Business School examined how childcare inequalities in the home affected the productivity of female talent. They studied the family structures of hedge fund managers and how this curbed female managers’ ability to generate abnormal returns in the “shock month” of school closures during the early Covid-19 pandemic response. The study found this ability to be curbed by about 9 percent, providing an estimate of the burden of unpaid care work and the subsequent costs to paid work borne by women, in general, and mothers, in particular.
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on working mothers reflects the traditional and pervasive societal mindset of women as the primary caregivers. Indeed, a report by Lean In and McKinsey & Company states that globally, mothers had to partake in threefold the amount of childcare and housework than fathers during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, the study finds that one in four women is contemplating ‘downshifting’ their careers, undoing the gigantic strides made in women’s economic empowerment over the preceding decades.
These studies of differential impacts of the pandemic by gender provided early warnings of how the COVID-19 crisis was going to upend the already skewed gender balance in labour force participation and progression across hierarchical levels. Indeed, results from a survey among INSEAD alumni established the fact that the pandemic has proved to be a life-altering experience for even some of the most privileged, educated and successful women professionals.
Unlike the phenomenon of ‘mancession’ that emerged amid the 2008 financial crisis, COVID-19 has spawned a new economic term: ‘shecession’. It’s a nod to the staggering number of women who have left the workforce—and counting—since the onset of the pandemic. Globally, over two million mothers gave up and left the job market in 2020 feeling unequipped to cope with the pressures of holding a steady job, raising children and attending to ‘unpaid’ housework. The CMIE (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy) data shows a decline in the number of women in urban India actively searching for a job. While 9.52 million women searched for jobs in 2019, the number declined to 6.52 million in 2021. Mirroring a worrying global trend, fewer women in urban India have returned to work, putting India Inc. at risk of losing valuable female talent. Further, these exits span multiple hierarchical levels - according to a leading executive search firm, women CEO appointments decreased from 12 per cent in 2019 to 6 per cent in the early phase of the pandemic.
Decreased labour force participation is also accompanied by the exacerbation of gender wage gaps. The voluntary downshifting of careers by women during the pandemic and greater furloughing of women’s jobs, including in developed nations have added to already prevalent gender disparities in wages. Needless to say, this negative impact on wages has threatened women's hard-won economic rights and sense of empowerment, further compromising their long-term financial security.
As the world rebounds from the pandemic, COVID-19 has permanently altered how women engage with their workplaces. A World Economic Forum (WEF) report published in 2019, measured the gender gap across key parameters in 153 countries and projected that it will take another 257 years for women to reach economic parity with men. The above studies underscore that these extant disparities have only been worsened further by the pandemic.
To avert this looming disaster, systemic changes need to be brought in by policymakers, employers, and society at large that can reverse this backward spiral in women’s progress.
Renewed focus on lucrative opportunities that ensure not just diversity by bringing more women back into the workforce but also inclusion that gives women a seat at key decision-making tables needs to be the key focus.
Decisive organisational measures are needed to catalyse participation of women in the labour market. Hiring shortlists that include a greater number of women, debiasing training as a tool to reduce the effect of subconscious cognitive biases in decision-making, reducing gender wage disparity and creating a work environment and culture, which allows men to share the current disproportionate burden of unpaid work, are just some of the best practices that can help eliminate gender disparities.
Financial education, improved social protection systems, undeterred access to financial institutions, and an ecosystem that fosters ‘womenpreneurs’ are some further measures that policymakers and societies globally can take to augment women's empowerment and hence sustained participation in the laboursome further measures that policymakers and societies globally can take to augment women's empowerment and hence sustained participation in the labour market.
Coming out of the pandemic, more women are seeking to regain their agency in the workplace. It is heartening to see conscious attempts by some leading firms to support women and encourage them to rejoin the workforce. For example, PepsiCo’s ‘returnship’ program aids women workers to readjust to the workforce after taking time off for caregiving during the pandemic. The silver lining in the pandemic induced shifts in the labour market is that, despite grappling with various challenges in the workplace, women are also reaping the benefits of the burgeoning gig economy that allows flexibility and opportunities for remote work.
It is going to be a long road ahead for female workers to recoup the adverse economic impact brought on by the pandemic. However, now is also the time for women to try to change the gender narrative in their favour—be it in the workplace or at home. If they fail to do so, actively participating in the labour market could well a pipe dream.