The outsized impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on working women includes many troubling trends such as increased gender based-violence, increased unpaid work burdens, a widening of the gender-based digital divide, and a spike in cyber harassment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has fast-tracked advances in Work from Home (WFH) arrangements and more recently, the emergence of the hybrid workplace – a judicious blend of WFH and in-person office presence. However, the unfolding picture for working women is far from rosy. The United Nations (UN) and international Labour Organization (ILO) warn of a “Great She-Cession” – a significant and long-lasting decline in workforce participation by women. Attracting, motivating, and retaining high-potential women in the workforce is critical and urgent for business continuity especially now, when companies across the world are grappling with acute pandemic-induced talent shortages.
WFH has shifted even more of the unpaid work burden of household operation to women – childcare, elderly care, and housekeeping, etc. Increasing household burdens, and the associated stress and time demands, are causing many women worldwide to shun career advancement or quit their jobs. WFH difficulties are exacerbated in Asia due to unique social and cultural factors.
If unchecked, current trends will result in huge setbacks in the progress made on gender parity over the last few decades. Businesses and policymakers must act swiftly to address the adverse effects that the pandemic has set in motion for working women and, in so doing, can shore up talent shortages in their own organizations.
The outsized impact of the pandemic on working women includes many troubling trends such as increased gender based-violence, increased unpaid work burdens, a widening of the gender-based digital divide, and a spike in cyber harassment.
Specific challenges in Asia include gender disparities in unpaid work allocation, smaller living spaces in Asia that disproportionately affect work productivity for women, and domestic violence and cyber-harassment targeting women.
There’s much that companies and managers can do within their own organizations to address these issues and thus expand their available talent pool and create competitive advantages.
Increase awareness. It is critical and urgent to raise awareness enterprise-wide about the fact that, contrary to expectations, working women across the world, and especially in Asia, are being hard hit by the pandemic in many ways that are different from men. Sharing evidence from credible sources will help promote awareness. Senior-most leaders need to visibly support these efforts and ‘walk the talk’.
Coach managers on how to create “safe spaces” for women to share their challenges. Our pulse survey indicates that, many women in Asia are hesitant to openly share their WFH and pandemic-related challenges, much less request special support. Training should be undertaken to enable managers to detect distress signals, promote candour, and handle sensitive conversations. As with all high potential talent, high potential women should be monitored closely for signs of burnout.
Provide bespoke support options on an inclusive basis. Challenges are unique to each individual, so no one size will fit all. Basic support should include flexible paid or unpaid leave arrangements, allowances for supporting infrastructure required for efficient home-based work1, and stipends for child support. Other measures could include paid sabbaticals, eldercare support, allowances to visit family overseas, and mandatory days off specifically for “re-charging”. It is important to ensure perceptions of fairness by also extending such support to employees who are single or without young children. Inequities in access to employee support programs can adversely affect management’s credibility and employee satisfaction.
Be vigilant and responsive on issues of cyber harassment and domestic violence. Managers should be trained to detect the early warning signs of cyber harassment and domestic violence. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and counselling resources to support affected female employees should be established and appropriately resourced. Corporate communications should highlight the availability of these benefits and assure employees of strict confidentiality.
Adapt performance assessment methods for WFH. Conventional performance measures need to be recalibrated to assess outcomes and value creation and work quality, as opposed to typical quantitative inputs common to normal in-office work activities. This will create a more equitable playing field for women who are more likely to opt for WFH or may be unable to maintain standard office hours due to pandemic disruptions. Trust-building exercises should be facilitated between bosses and their reports working from home, and clear boundaries established to empower employees to effectively pace their own work and proactively report on progress.
Tackle rehiring biases and enable women returnees. The rehiring stigma in Asia for women who take career breaks needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency – especially now, given the increased rate of female attrition because of pandemic-caused burdens at home. Exemplary initiatives aimed at enabling women to ease their way back into the workforce and set them up for success after career breaks include IBM’s “returnship” programs2 and Citi’s BacktoWork3 initiative. Nestle India offers sabbaticals to women employees who wish to take a break and keeps in close touch with those who are most vulnerable to flight risk4. Providing legitimacy to returnship programs will empower high-potential women to exit the workforce when they choose, knowing that they can re-enter later when their work-life conditions permit.
Enlist male champions. As in all gender equity programs, change will be elusive without greater participation of men in solution-making. Male champions who visibly demonstrate a personal commitment to busting gender biases should be actively recruited and developed. For example, Nestle India facilitates discussions in the workplace about gender disparities in unpaid work allocation and encourages male employees to be more supportive of working women both at home and at work.5 Senior-most male leaders should be encouraged to make their voices heard on the topic.