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COVID-19 is causing a backslide in workplace gender equality. Here’s how to stop it

August 3, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC
Working Mother-COVID-19
Ulrike Loffler works as her daughter Alex hugs her at their home in Palma de Mallorca on May 19, 2020, during the national lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease. - Ulrike, 46 is a single mother that works as a translator while she takes care of her daughter. Spain began last week a three-phase plan to end lockdowns for half the country by the end of June. The lockdown measures initially imposed were among the strictest in Europe. (Photo by JAIME REINA / AFP) (Photo by JAIME REINA/AFP via Getty Images)
JAIME REINA—AFP/Getty Images

Women are in the fight of their lives as we run the risk of unraveling decades of progress. Stopping the dramatic COVID-19 backslide in workplace equality requires immediate action.

Women and minorities are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic—in the job types and industries affected as well as in the increased demands they face as primary caretakers at home, exacerbated by the current and not-fully-understood childcare crisis. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has acknowledged the pandemic “is having devastating social and economic consequences for women and girls.”

The economic impact of working moms’ coronavirus-related juggling act has been estimated at $341 billion. Not only are women and working moms balancing a plethora of responsibilities as the lines between career and parenthood are indefinitely blurred with shelter-in-place, they are also fearing for their jobs—approximately 60% of the jobs eliminated in the first wave of pandemic-induced layoffs were held by women. Single moms have been particularly hard hit by the crisis, losing jobs at a far higher rate than other families with children.

Because of this, the female labor force participation rate dipped below 55% (54.7%) in April 2020 for the first time since February 1986, when it was at 54.8%.

The accommodations and food service industry, as well as the healthcare and social assistance industry, have unsurprisingly been some of the hardest-hit employers. Women of color make up a disproportionate share of workers in both industries, at 24.3% and 30.3%, respectively. Not only are they losing their jobs, but returning to the workforce is harder for women of color, who frequently experience higher unemployment rates than their white counterparts.

We are living in a moment in history unlike any in our lifetimes, with an unstable confluence of factors triggering the loss of a generation of progress in workplace equality—a lost generation of professional, predominantly millennial women.

Not since 9/11 have Americans experienced a defining event that so fundamentally and immediately changed our day-to-day lives. 

WerkLabs, the data and insights division of The Mom Project, recently completed a 2,000-person study on COVID-19’s present and future impacts. The findings are alarming. While the majority of those surveyed reported being adversely affected professionally by COVID-19, self-reported job satisfaction scores for women are 27% lower than those for men when considering employee experience and socio-emotional factors.

While both women and men anticipate staying in the workforce at similar levels over the next three months, women are nearly twice as likely as their male counterparts to leave their employer within a year.

For employers, the time to act is now. Business leaders have a unique opportunity to enact change that will keep diverse talent in the workplace while creating a culture where they can grow and thrive. Here’s what we recommend:

Embrace and implement flexibility

The shift to more progressive work policies should not be limited to Bay Area tech companies; all companies will benefit from a more flexible workplace. Among other things, they should:

Embrace remote. Professionals who are limited by rigid in-office requirements can thrive in a remote work environment. Remote work improves employee engagement and significantly expands your candidate pool, allowing you to reach the best talent.

Revisit job structures and innovate beyond the 40-hour work week. Consider four-day work weeks and 30-hour schedules, which are shown to improve productivity.

Consider what’s best by team and department. What’s right for sales might not fit for engineers. Get a pulse from your leaders and employees to find a plan that is optimal by team case.

Lead with compassion

As the world has shifted overnight, our teams need us to lead with respect and compassion, and we must gain their trust that we are there on a human level. We should:

Train managers on how to support teams who are juggling the ever-evolving challenges of work, family, anxiety and isolation. Consider offering new benefits that will help employees combat these challenges.

Increase frequency of communication touch points from leadership and provide more informal settings for team members to ask questions and let their voices be heard.

Lead by example. Show your team you’re committed to building a more human-centric workplace by taking days off and assuring them they’re supported in bringing their whole self to work.

Invest in inclusion & diversity

Expand, don’t pause or restrict, inclusion and diversity initiatives and hiring. More diverse and inclusive companies are better positioned to create more effective and adaptive teams.

Act nowSeizing the moment to reaffirm your commitment to I&D will position your business to win the talent war, improve the quality of decision making, increase insight and innovation, drive employee engagement, and strengthen reputation.

Stay flexible. Be cognizant of how your internal stakeholder groups’ needs differ, and the extent to which business critical decisions impact diverse employee groups differently. 

As leaders, what we do in the coming months could define our legacy. Let’s not squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Let’s leave the world and workplace in a better, more inclusive place than when we arrived.

Allison Robinson is the CEO and founder of The Mom Project, a leader in helping businesses attract and retain female talent.