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After the pandemic’s rewind of women’s progress, here’s how businesses should advance equity

March 8, 2022, 1:30 PM UTC
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"By championing all elements of women’s well-being, businesses can not only create high performing, equitable workplaces, but also build a more equitable world," the authors write.
Courtesy of Getty Images

After a two-year confluence of crises that strained our health care system, workforce, and economy, the future of gender equity in America is deeply uncertain. COVID-19 continues to stretch our health care system to its limits and devastate communities. Faced with school closures and a scarcity of safe, affordable support for aging family, women’s burden of caregiving has increased, with even heavier burden on women with limited financial means. During the pandemic-infused recession, women have also lost jobs or left the workforce in record numbers.

Women’s mass exodus from the workforce, which cost the United States nearly $65 billion in 2021, could pose a grave danger to our economy and society. This exodus rewinds nearly 40 years’ of the slow and uneven progress that has already left so many women from racially and otherwise diverse backgrounds behind. Moreover, the effects of gender inequity today will likely reverberate for decades to come, as losses in health and wealth are often passed down through generations. 

Increasing women’s active participation in the workforce can strengthen business—accelerating domestic GDP growth that could add $5.87 trillion to global market capitalization over the next decade—bringing our society closer to inclusive prosperity.

The business community’s spheres of influence uniquely position us to address these challenges and empower all women to live full, healthy lives. Specifically, we as business leaders have an opportunity to boldly address women’s access to economic opportunity, professional advancement, and health and well-being.

Economic opportunity 

Factors like occupational segregation and wage discrimination can often trap women in or near poverty. Low-income and racially and ethnically diverse women are more likely to face jobs with low wages, unpredictable and inconsistent hours, and limited upward economic mobility. 

These factors can force women to make impossible “choices”: e.g., feed their families or pay  for crucial medication; or attend to a sick child at home or risk losing their jobs. Though these challenges also plague men, women, especially those from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, are significantly more likely to be in poverty and to bear the brunt of these trade-offs. This is exacerbated further for women with disabilities, who experience poverty at a higher rate than men with disabilities, and at over twice the rate of women without disability. 

An array of barriers, including financial disparities between school districts and the price of educationprevent people from lower-income and historically disadvantaged groups from accessing these careers. Further, women, and especially racially and ethnically diverse women, face distinctly high barriers in this context: Single Black women have lower net worth than their Black, male counterparts; Latina women have smaller social networks than their male peers. 

We must turn lower-paying jobs into family-sustaining jobs while investing in women’s education and opportunity.  

Professional advancement 

When women enter careers, including higher-paying careers, substantial barriers to professional advancement can widen the gender gap—and exacerbate existing inequities among women of different races, income levels, and more. 

In fact, while nearly 80% of white women surveyed in a recent report focused on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the workforce say they are committed to connecting women of color with job opportunities, just nine percent of those with managerial authority are currently sponsoring a woman of color in their workplace. Black and Latina women combined account for just over 8% of all management positions, compared to white women who hold just under one third of positions. Further, women of all backgrounds who make it to top-level management continue to struggle to achieve equitable compensation.

Compounding these inequities, professional women at all levels often contend with disproportionate caregiving duties, shouldering nearly 70% of household tasks including childcare. At the height of the pandemic, many American families faced a dilemma between work and childcare, with a disproportionate burden falling on mothers. Recent studies show that mothers of young children reduced their hours by at least four times that of fathers to care for family while working. Women in low-income brackets also face a predicament of  working multiple jobs to afford daycare or staying home and forfeiting career advancement and income potential. 

Health and well-being 

Healthy women help drive more productive, better educated communities and stronger economies. However, efforts by organizations to create economic opportunities and enable professional advancement for women will fall short if deep health inequities many women face are not addressed. 

Deloitte recently launched its Health Equity Institute (DHEI) to help identify and address the root causes that contribute to health disparities. Specifically, DHEI is focused on addressing racism and bias, non-medical drivers such as pollution and poverty, and structural flaws in the health care system to advance health and wellbeing for women. 

Within the life sciences and health care industry, women face unique health needs and risk-factors. However, women are significantly underrepresented in clinical trials, research, and among practicing physicians and can sometimes face an uphill battle for accurate diagnosis, treatment, and care. 

For example, approximately 80% of all patients diagnosed with autoimmune disease are women, a disorder continuously underfunded compared to other disease types with similar patient population sizes. Women are also at least twice as likely as men to experience mental health issues, in part due to the pressures that they experience in the office and at home.

In addition, women of racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds face especially acute risk as they navigate their health. In the United States – where the maternal mortality rate is growing and the highest among industrialized countries – Black and Indigenous women continue to fare the worst. Respectively, they are at least three and two times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared to white women.Latina women are more than twice as likely to die from stomach cancer than non-Hispanic white women. Disparities persist across numerous other health conditions and create many opportunities for improvement.  

The steps we should take

Business leaders should take bold action to dismantle the barriers to gender equity. Leaders can start by: 

  • Increasing investment in the pipeline of talented women by working alone or in collaboration with other organizations to advocate for living wages, build diverse talent-development and recruitmentprograms, and expand financing and benefits programs to support workforce access to a wide range of educational support (e.g., GED, trade school, English language learning, higher education). Efforts might also include investing directly in women-owned business.
  • Providing robust benefits and programs that conscientiously support women. Programs and benefits might include predictable and stable scheduling for workers, robust paid family and caregiver leave, and subsidies for child- or elder-care. They might also be non-tangible benefits like the establishment of clear cultural norms to combat the stigma many working parents and caretakers face.
  • Address the pervasive issues hindering women’s health and well-being by pooling resources (e.g., dollars, fixed-assets) with other, cross-sector organizations. Efforts might include increasing expanded access to the full range of healthcare services women need (e.g., reproductive,cardiovascular), expanding women-focused community health worker programs, and offering supplemental support for medication and treatment costs for women’s health needs through appropriate coverage. 

Ultimately, these steps are just the beginning. Equity requires more than a one-off initiative. It should be embedded into how an organization does business, incorporated into all aspects of what they do, and sustained over time.  

The last two years have, by seemingly every metric, felt like a rewind of progress toward women’s equity. But businesses have an extraordinary opportunity to turn that rewind into a reset. By championing all elements of women’s well-being—from career opportunities to economic support to physical and mental health—businesses can not only create high performing, equitable workplaces, but also build a more equitable world.

Janet Foutty is the executive chair of the board of Deloitte US.

Kulleni Gebreyes is the US chief health equity officer of Deloitte

Lara Abrash is chair and chief executive officer of Deloitte & Touche LLP

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