It’s that time again: each year on March 8th, International Women’s Day (IWD) presents an opportunity to honour women while also calling attention to the countless battles for women’s rights unfolding at any given moment around the world. While some treat the event as a celebration of womanhood, others harness its potential to stage protests—and still, others do both.
IWD 2020 also happened to be the last big pre-COVID event before worldwide restrictions and lockdowns went into effect just days later. In other words, IWD 2021 also marks humanity’s 1-year COVID-19 anniversary (though I doubt many will be celebrating this occasion).
In thinking about how IWD and COVID-19 are connected, it’s useful to first understand that the now-seasoned COVID adage, “We’re all in this together,” has been proven reductive time and again—and in more ways than one.
Women, work, and COVID-19
It’s no secret that COVID-19 has affected women at work.
For instance, four times more women than men dropped out of the US workforce in September 2020 as children returned to virtual school and daycare centres stayed closed. That’s 865,000 women compared to 216,000 men. This confirmed predictions that the impact of the pandemic would be extremely gendered. And to take an even closer look, women of colour make up the majority of these out-of-work women, largely because of preexisting race and class inequity.
How COVID-19 has affected “women’s work”
According to the McKinsey Global Institute, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis than men’s jobs globally. While women make up 39% of paid employees, they account for 54% of overall job losses. In the US, where women made up 46% of the workforce pre-COVID-19, industry-mix effects would suggest that women should make up 43% of job losses, but, similar to global numbers, they make up 54% of overall losses.
While pre-existing gender inequities are at the root of why women’s work is so disproportionately affected by COVID-19, the disparity can be seen most strikingly with across-the-board losses in the childcare sector. Pre-COVID, women already did three times more unpaid care work than men. Without adequate operational childcare services during the pandemic, this deeply gendered burden of unpaid care has increased drastically.
In addition to the childcare conundrum, there’s the fact that women and men tend to dominate different sectors, and woman-dominated sectors tend to pay a lot less—while also being among those worst-affected by the crisis.
For instance, globally, women hold 54% of jobs in accommodations and food service, 43% of retail and wholesale trade jobs; and 46% in other services, such as the arts, recreation, and public administration. All of these have born the brunt of the pandemic’s effects.
While for some women, working low-paying jobs does not represent economic hardship, 80% of single-parent families are headed by single mothers, many of them struggling to make ends meet. As though to add insult to injury, 70% of the healthcare workers around the world currently risking their lives are women.
The fact is, without intervention which addresses the specific impacts of COVID-19 on women and their work, there’s a real risk that hard-won progress could unravel, setting back both gender equality and the economy as it does.
The good news is that being proactive about mitigating the imbalances now can improve life for working women as well as help keep your company’s growth on track.
How businesses can support women at work
In the spirit of moving boldly forward, here are 8 tangible ways that HR managers and businesses can support their employees through work or life changes instigated by COVID-19 and beyond:
1. Flex time
Nothing beats a flexible work arrangement, even on a good day. With the recent global spike in remote work, employees have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to work remotely and efficiently.
In addition to being flexible with regard to where the work gets done, giving employees the freedom to choose when they fulfil their responsibilities is also a plus. Since the needs of working parents vary, be open to different types of flexible work arrangements to best offer support to your team. These might include compressing the workweek into four days, or the bulk of work getting done in the evening, once the kids are in bed.
2. Leaves of absence
In the pandemic context, allowing for leaves of absence—both paid and unpaid, depending on the scenario—is crucial to reducing employee stress. If an employee or a member of their family contracts COVID-19, support measures can include employment protection, paid sick leave, and economic transfers such as subsidies for health expenditures or child benefits. Ensuring protected long-term leave in the event that an employee has to care for relatives who are sick, elderly or disabled is also worth exploring.
3. Specific time-off types
There’s no time like the present to assess whether your current workplace policies support families well enough. You might start by identifying the most urgent needs of working parents, with a special focus on more vulnerable employees such as those with temporary, informal, or migrant status; women who are pregnant or nursing; or those with disabilities who lack access to key benefits like paid sick leave. Work to ensure that beneficial policies apply to all employees, regardless of their gender or employment status (i.e. whether they’re an employee or a contract worker).
4. Professional development
Professional development has been put on the back burner during the pandemic. With so many difficult financial decisions to make, many businesses wonder if now’s really the time to be focusing on something like knowledge-building. The thing is, as time passes, career development lags, and careers regress, increasing the risk of turnover. Now more then ever, it’s important to ensure employees feel engaged with their work.
Start by speaking to your employees about their career goals, and then come up with ways of helping fulfil those goals by encouraging virtual training and learning opportunities or establishing a formal mentoring program. Allocate a specific number of work hours each week/month to professional development as opposed to making it extra work for already overloaded parents.
This is a big one. Find a way to support parents by providing quality options for safe, accessible, and affordable childcare. As the closure of schools and daycares persist and become even more widespread, many working parents—moms particularly—are faced with severely limited options, if any. You can show support in numerous ways, such as with childcare referral systems (wherever they remain safe and available), childcare subsidies, and flexible work arrangements!
6. Domestic violence support
The pandemic, sadly, has left many women (and some men) in abusive relationships trapped at home with their partner, fueling a rise in domestic violence. To help address these unintended consequences of stay-at-home measures, businesses can play a key role by directing employees to important services such as domestic violence hotlines or women’s shelters (wherever still accessible).
7. Include women in decision-making
One surefire way of making better, more sustainable and inclusive decisions that look out for the wellbeing of your entire team is to include women in all planning and decision-making. The more diverse your team is, the more inclusive and well-informed the decision-making process will be. This is crucial in the COVID-19 era and well beyond it too!
8. Keep empathizing
For many women, navigating work and COVID-19 has become more challenging with time, because while arriving late to a video call or having a child interrupt were forgiven at the start of the pandemic, many workplaces have already become desensitized to these challenges—even though kids are still at home.
Cultivate empathy by making an effort to understand the challenges of working mothers, even if they’re not ones you’re personally familiar with. Workplace empathy is not only the human approach, but it also leads to better collaboration and lower turnover. One very simple approach is to begin all meetings with a check-in to see how people are doing. This can help build a mutual understanding of lived experiences without singling anyone out!
Bottom line: it’s important to remember that life and work are still far from “normal.” But in order to retain your employees (particularly women and especially those with children), and cultivate an environment of mutual respect, it’s important to adapt to new employee needs in the face of COVID-19. After all, there’s nothing better for business than adaptability—and the changes you make now are likely to serve your business well into the post-pandemic future too.