The economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that working women are among the most affected when economic crises hit. How can employers ensure a resilient female workforce and, in turn, a more resilient economy?
Statistics from around the world show that the economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately impacted women. From staying on the frontlines in jobs like nursing, teaching, or customer service to leaving the workforce to take care of children or aging relatives, women have faced difficult choices that affect their financial wellbeing. Yet, women are a critical part of the economy, both as employees and consumers, and finding ways to alleviate the economic pressure on them is critical for the global recovery.
“Existing inequalities are being exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis and not only threaten to reverse the progress made to date on advancing gender equality, but also hinder our ability to build back better as the impacts of inequitable norms in
our economy limit the contributions of women to our response and recovery,” says Natalie Elwell, Senior Gender Advisor at the World Resource Institute.
The success of our economies and societies is directly related to women being present in and empowered by their workplace.
Half of the world’s population is female, so this is a major segment for most businesses, says Allyson Zimmermann, Executive Director for EMEA at Catalyst, a non-profit that works to accelerate progress for women in the workplace. She notes that having women in the workforce is therefore essential for companies to successfully market to women.
Zimmermann encourages business leaders to ask themselves “How can you represent your customers if you don’t look and think like them?”
Amanda Weinstein, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Akron, notes that women make the majority of household consumption decisions. So, understanding what women want is critically important if businesses want to sell their goods and services to consumers.
“It is difficult to understand what women want without women in the workplace – particularly in positions that can guide business decisions,” Weinstein says.
Elwell points out that there are other benefits to having women be a part of the team.
“Women bring diversity, and diversity enables innovation, creativity and improved problem solving. And diverse teams outperform homogenous teams when it comes to a customer and client focus and ultimately the bottom line,” Elwell explains.
From a purely economic standpoint, the fewer women we have in the workforce, the longer it will take to recover, Weinstein says.
“A recent jobs report [in the USA] announced employers cut 140,000 jobs – all of them women. This does not bode well for the prospects of economic recovery,” she adds.
But getting women back in the workforce requires recognising the unique challenges they face.
According to Zimmermann, working parents—and primarily working mothers—are experiencing not only heavy job losses but seemingly insurmountable childcare and mental-health crises as a result of the pandemic. Women have been disproportionately impacted by the closings of schools and day care facilities. This has served as a kind of wake-up call to employers about the need for increased flexibility and support systems.
“To alleviate the challenges parents are facing, companies must provide increased transparency around available benefits and create an environment in which employees do not feel they are faulted for being parents,” Zimmerman says.
One way to tackle this problem is to prioritise work-life balance, says Weinstein
“Businesses can support women in the workforce by ensuring they are making decisions with work-life balance in mind. Even just having the conversation about work-life balance can go a long way in knowing your employer cares about you and what you care about, your family. Businesses need to prioritise tasks ensuring (especially right now) that they are not tasking women with unnecessary requests that really don’t bring any real value to the company but take up real time. Flexibility is always key for women,” Weinstein says.
To find out what women need, Elwell suggests asking them, and then putting necessary policies in place based on these conversations.
“Employers can talk to the women in their workplace to find out what they need to feel supported. This may be different in different places, so companies should create the spaces and take the time to find out directly from the women who work for them what they need. This can be done through focus group discussions, town halls, and surveys. Men should also be afforded similar consideration if they are expected to share equally in parenting and other caregiving responsibilities,” Elwell says, adding that corporations should create a culture of support and understanding, in addition to building that support into policies and standard or expected practices.
Zimmermann notes that while women broadly have been more impacted by the economic downturn than men, not all women have been affected equally. Women of colour have faced additional challenges. They are suffering heavier job losses and are more likely to be essential workers, often earning lower wages and facing health risks to themselves and their families.
In many ways, the fact that working women have been so vulnerable to the current economic crisis can be explained by unconscious bias, which frequently influences hiring, promotion and salary decisions.
“Many biases in the workforce are unconscious and our colleagues and bosses have no idea they have these biases, but it doesn’t make them any less real or any less inhibitive of women,” says Weinstein.
She suggests using data to help identify and combat bias. “Companies can keep and track data on gender differences in employment, promotions, applications, tasks, wages, etc.” When gender gaps arise, she says, “The first question should always be ‘what barriers has the company constructed that are keeping women out of these opportunities?”
Elwell notes that the issues demonstrated by the data will also determine the best way to confront it.
“The issues that emerge are going to drive the approach you take to addressing the bias. This will likely combine policy changes, training for those in decision-making positions, revising hiring and promotion practices to reduce the potential for bias, strengthening anti-harassment policies, including reporting and investigation practices, and putting in place accountability mechanisms such as building equity targets into performance goals and promotional reviews,” Elwell says.
Acknowledging the challenges women face and addressing them systematically will go a long way towards creating corporations that will be prepared to face the economic crises of the future.
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