In April 2020, at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, warned that limited gains in gender equality and women’s rights were in danger of being rolled back due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This threatened the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5 – gender equality. A policy brief from the UN from the same period also highlighted that the coronavirus pandemic was having a disproportionate impact on women and girls.
Existing economic inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic, as unpaid care work has increased due to the closure of schools. In line with this, in September 2020, the UN Development Programme projected that the pandemic would widen the poverty gap between women and men. Furthermore, the compounding of social and economic stress has resulted in increased gender-based violence. In the UK, a parliamentary select committee warned in February 2021 that the government risked “turning the clock back on gender equality” by neglecting to address inequalities in the labour market, and the fact that caring responsibilities had increased during the pandemic.
The direct impact on women as individuals, as well as the systemic impact on the rate of change towards gender equality are critical issues for investors focused on long-term sustainable wealth creation and better, more sustainable outcomes for society.
Diversity and performance
The link between diversity in leadership and business performance, suggests that a diverse board and executive team would help a company to be more resilient during a prolonged crisis such as a pandemic. Yet there is still a lack of women in executive positions on boards. Investors should consider how companies empower their employees and build a strong and diverse pipeline of candidates for leadership through effective human capital management.
For working parents, the pandemic has created a tension between normalising flexible and home working, and the increased “hidden labour” of caring for and educating children. A caregivers survey published by the Boston Consulting Group in October 2020, found that half of parents said their responsibilities at home had increased during the pandemic, while their ability to perform their work had reduced.
In many cases the responsibility for childcare, home teaching and housework has fallen disproportionally on women. A June 2020 survey by Catalyst, a global non-profit organisation striving to build workplaces that work for women, highlighted that women were twice as likely to be primarily responsible for home schooling children versus men. Furthermore, in the same survey only 13% of women said that their male partner had taken on more of the household chores, versus one in three men who claimed this was the case.
Women of colour have also been disproportionately impacted. They are statistically at a higher risk of catching Covid-19 due to their frontline working roles, and are also at greater risk of losing their jobs due to their positions in industries hit hardest by the pandemic, such as retail, hospitality, recreation, and manufacturing.
Companies should be prepared to engage with their employees to gain a holistic understanding of their concerns and challenges. Only with this understanding can they begin to address the longstanding disparities that the pandemic has highlighted.
This might be through formal policies, such as providing gender-equal parental leave and encouraging and supporting male employees to use this, or through training, such as improving managers’ sensitivity towards these issues. This could lead to changes in working arrangements, the fostering of more inclusive cultures, and a consideration of hidden labour burdens in performance reviews.
The disruption caused by the pandemic offers a chance to reset working habits, so companies should be prepared to consider how their work practices can be more inclusive and effective. Companies should be careful not to transfer presenteeism to the online world, but instead redesign work by setting clear objectives and empowering employees to deliver in a way that suits their personal circumstances and preferences.
Employers also need to address persistent gender discrimination that can be replicated in the virtual world. When companies consider a partial return to the office with hybrid arrangements, they should acknowledge and mitigate the risk to homeworkers of being left out of decision-making, which could negatively impact their career prospects.