Women have made giant strides in the workplace over the past half-century in terms of earnings, employment and careers. The Covid pandemic, however, risks undoing many of these gains in a matter of months. Suddenly saddled with increased caregiving duties – whether for children or elderly parents – women have been forced to reduce their hours… or stop working altogether
Professional women are at particular risk right now.While fortunate enough to have quality jobs, many are being forced by theincreased demands of child care to reduceworking hours – or stop working altogether. Mothers have alwayshandled more of a household’s child care than fathers have, but it has becomefurther lopsided since lockdowns began earlier this year.
As a result, more than one in four women are consideringdownshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. Latestreports suggest that women’sparticipation rate in the labor market continues to fall fasterthan for men.
With schools across the country struggling toopen classrooms for in-person learning, many women have littlechoice but to either continue juggling the needs of their children with thedemands of their jobs or give up on the latter. The longer the pandemic goeson, the more it threatens to cause permanent damage to women’s ability toadvance their careers and earn an income.
However, this outcome is not inevitable. As an expert inbusiness ethics, I believe companies have the ability – and duty –to prevent many of these negative outcomes.
Child care responsibilities
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of all workingwomen. Since women are generally responsible for organizing child care fortheir families, the demands on their time have increased significantly duringthe pandemic.
A study looking at the period of time prior to the firstwidespread US outbreak in February through the first peak in April showed that mothers with youngchildren had reduced their work hours four to five times morethan fathers, exacerbating the gender gap in work hours by 20% to 50%.
Another study,which examined data from the Census Household Pulse survey in late April andearly May, found that over 80% of US adults were not working because they hadto care for their children not in school or daycare were women.
And with the school year currently in full swing, womencontinue to cite child care at a much higher rate than men do as a reason thatthey are not able to work. Management consultancy Boston Consulting Group foundwomen are spending 15more hours a week on domestic labor during the pandemic than men.
And Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on helping companiesbetter serve women, reported thatwomen are twice as likely as men to be responsible for homeschooling.
Some of it, however, has to do with what’s most practicalfor a family. If someone needs to reduce hours, families will choose the person whomakes less – and usually, that is the woman.
But it’s not just mothers. Women without children arealso more likely to be in caregiving roles, even more so during thepandemic.
Two-thirds ofcaregivers are women, meaning they provide daily or regularsupport to children, adults or people with chronic illnesses or disabilities –and are also atrisk of losing job-related ground due to stress and burnout.
Helping women thrive
Companiesneed to understand how gender bias further disadvantages womenduring times of crisis. Women are typicallypenalized for being “visible caregivers,” while fathers benefitfrom a “fatherhood bonus.”
And even when companies have supportive policies inplace, there’s often a disconnect in how thesepolicies are implemented and integrated.
· Fortunately, companies can do a lot to softenthe impact and offset disparities altogether
· The first thing companies should do is surveytheir employees to determine what they need. The results canguide the types of policies that could best address workers’ uniqueconcerns and situations
· Whatever management changes are made, it’simperative that businesses communicate clearly and often with all employees andset appropriate and reasonable workloads
· Given the increased strains workers are under,it’s alsovery helpful to organize and distribute mental health resources andencourage employees to use them
· Increased flexibility is something all womenneed right now. Women taking care of young children especially need moreflexibility to help them juggle competing demands on their time
· Flexible work can mean many things, such asallowing employees to continue working from home even after others return tothe office
· For example, many parents are driving theirchildren to school to avoid the bus, so companies can help by simply notscheduling important meetings at common pickup and drop-off times
· Other families may have their children home allthe time because of online school or child care issues, so recording meetingsand events for people who cannot attend – or who have disruptions – will ensureeveryone has access to important information
· But it’s not just about providing flexibility towomen. Men need flexibility too so they can handlemore of the child care duties – allowing women to spend more timedoing their professional jobs