Why We Can’t Drop The Ball On Gender Equity Work – The Impacts Of COVID-19 On Women In The Workplace

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The past couple of years have seen a long overdue focus on workplace diversity, equity, inclusion and reconciliation. In the wake of social movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and LandBack, employers have increasingly stepped up; recognizing that our workplaces need to better reflect the societies and the communities that we operate in, and acting on their responsibility to proactively dismantle the inequities that are built into organizational structures and practices.

This work is an ongoing process, with a recent report by McLean and Company suggesting that diversity, equity and inclusion will continue to be one of the Top 5 priorities in the coming year, noting that only 6 per cent of organizations are not focusing on DEI in 2021

But there’s another factor that has also come into play over the last 12 months and that is, of course, COVID-19. While every one of us has felt the effects of the pandemic, the further we get into this crisis the more data becomes available for us to truly understand the impact of it on our workplaces. And unfortunately, that data shows that not everyone has been impacted equally, and that it is women – and in particular racialized women – who are carrying a disproportionate share of the burden. In the words of Melinda Gates, COVID-19 is gender-blind but not gender-neutral.

If employers don’t take action, we risk undoing the progress that has been made in women’s participation and advancement in the workforce over the last few years. So how has COVID-19 impacted women in the workforce, and what can organizations do to combat this?

The Impacts Of COVID-19 On Women

1.  Job Losses 

Part of the problem is that women are more likely to be employed in industries that have been most affected by the pandemic – with almost half of women in BC working in hospitality, retail, education and healthcare. It’s perhaps no wonder then that a recent report by the BC Women’s Foundation found that women lost 60 per cent more jobs than their male counterparts during the first few months of the pandemic, pushing the effective unemployment rate of women to a staggering 28 per cent. This trend was reflected across Canada, leading Armine Yalnizyan, an economic adviser to the Trudeau government, to dub this as a “she-cession”. While the most recent BC Labour Force Statistics show that this percentage has thankfully dropped to 7.1% for January,2021, this still remains a full percentage higher for women than for men.

2. Caring Responsibilities

One consequence of the rapid and unplanned shift to remote working is that the work life boundary became blurred, seemingly overnight. Coupled with public health order restrictions, including school closures, parents across the province have been forced to juggle the competing demands of work and childcare responsibilities, often doing both at same time, and in the same place.

With stats from the US showing that mothers working full-time spend 50% more time each day caring for children than fathers working full-time. It is not surprising that the impact of the pandemic in BC has followed suit, with more mothers than fathers suffering a reduction in working hours as a result of the pandemic.

3. Mental and Physical Wellbeing 

It goes without saying that none of us are immune to the psychological and physical effects of the pandemic, and on an individual level many people have suffered devastating consequences over these last 12 months. But there are particular trends that have been felt more strongly by some groups than others.

 The McKinsey and Company “Women in the Workplace 2020” Report found that, in the US:

“Black women are more than twice as likely as women overall to have lost a loved one to COVID-19, in addition to carrying the emotional toll of racial violence across the country. Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely than white mothers to be responsible for all childcare and housework, and are more likely to worry about layoffs and furloughs. And LGBTQ+ women are almost twice as likely as employees overall to cite mental health as one of their biggest challenges during COVID-19.”

Additionally, the nature of women’s work in frontline occupations means that their job roles are exposing them to greater elements of risk.

Troublingly, there has also been an increase in domestic violence, with the BC Women’s Foundation Report stating that 16 per cent of women reported a perceived risk of domestic violence as an impact of COVID-19. This trend is reflected worldwide, with research from the United Nations reporting, an increase in calls to domestic violence helplines in many countries since the outbreak of COVID-19, leading them to refer to this as the “Shadow Pandemic”.

What Can Employers Do In Response?

The good news is that the more we come to understand the long term impacts of the pandemic on our societies and workplaces, the more we can proactively respond to these challenges. Here are our top 3 recommendations for employers: 

1. Improve Flexible Working Practices – For Everyone

Let’s start with the basics. At an absolute minimum organizations need to understand their obligations under the relevant human rights legislation in their province. Under the BC Human Rights Code, that means being aware of the duty to accommodate requests that fall under protected grounds, such as family status.

But, more than this, now is the time for employers to be reviewing their policies to ensure that they proactively offer flexible working options, such as flexible hours, part time working and job sharing.

Importantly, these options need to be made available to all staff–not just women–and take up actively encouraged, if we are ever to shift the societal expectation that women and working mothers bear the brunt of caring responsibilities. Combat “flexibility stigma” by making it a default that all roles can be worked flexibly unless there is a solid business reason for why not. Put it in your job postings! Model flexible working from the top down, with senior leaders being vocal about their part time and flexible schedules. And provide training and communication on your policies to all staff and managers, so that they know what is available to them.

2. Change Your Cultural Norms To Avoid Burnout And Mental Stress

With the work and home boundary being eroded, coupled with less job security, it’s not surprising that many employees feel an increased pressure to be logged on at all hours. Employers need to be intentional about creating boundaries for their people, and re-setting expectations around availability and visibility–particularly when it comes to those expectations which particularly disadvantage working parents with children in the home.

Some suggestions are to establish “out of  work hours” blackouts for emails and calls; to build in minimum notice periods when scheduling meetings; establish realistic goals and deadlines for work projects; introduce “meeting free” days to allow everyone a chance to recharge; and rethink the default of a “camera on” approach to communication. 

You should also ensure that your paid time off, family and care leave, domestic violence leave, and benefits provisions are providing the support that your employees need. If you’re not sure–ask them!

3. Continue To Invest In The Development And Advancement Of Women

Right now, staff development might not feel like a priority. That’s completely understandable. But the reality is that in order to continue closing the gender equity and pay gap, it is critical to have women in strategic and decision making roles, especially as we get to grips with the long term changes that the pandemic will have on the way that we work. 

If your organization is not already building a strategy for how to support, develop, mentor and advance the high performing women in your organization, now is the time to do so. At a minimum organizations should be reassessing how they are measuring performance, and ensuring that they have performance mechanisms that focus on measurable deliverables, and not on assumptions of performance (like presenteeism) that may be rooted in bias.

What Next?

If we don’t act now, COVID-19 has the potential to set back years of advancement in gender equity. The McKinsey report warns that as a result of the last 12 months, 1-in-4 women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable less than a year ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.

The impacts of that would be devastating. For the benefit of our workplaces, our societies and our economy, we need the active participation of women, especially in senior roles. A Government of Canada report from 2019 stated that closing the wage gap and increasing female participation in the workforce could add up to $150 billion to the Canadian economy by 2026, increasing annual GDP growth by 0.6%. We cannot lose sight of that aim.

There is good news, however. If we make the right changes, remote working and increased flexibility have the potential to radically transform the ways in which we work to create workplaces that are more supportive and inclusive. As we start to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, the time is now to focus on workplace gender equity.

 


 

Cheryll Januszewski (she/her) is the co-founder of Libra Consulting Ltd., a boutique, women-owned consulting firm offering tailored gender equity and inclusion services to organizations across Canada. She is seasoned HR practitioner and CHRP, with over 15 years’ experience advising on people, culture and inclusion practices.

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