Across the world, COVID-19 has done serious damage to the hard-won progress that has been made in many aspects of gender equality over several decades. There are a number of recent research studies that indicate this negative impact of COVID-19 on women in the workplace, confirming that women have worked in higher risk sectors that have been harder hit, such as healthcare and social work. The decline in women’s economic empowerment could have a significant long-term impact in affecting the South African economy, organisations’ bottom line and the financial stability of domestic households.
Sectors that mainly employ women have been affected
There are several recent research studies that indicate this negative impact of COVID-19 on women in the workplace, confirming that women have worked in higher risk sectors that have been harder, such as healthcare and social work. Two examples of research findings are:
- According to a local research paper published by the Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in November 2020, titled Unpacking the potential implications of COVID-19 for gender inequality in the SA labour market, finds:
“Four key sectors which mainly employ women have been hardest hit. These include the services sector, which employs approximately 31% of all employed women; followed by the trade (22%), finance (15%) and domestic worker (14%) sectors.”
- A joint article published in July 2021 by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations Women and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) titled, Gender Equality and COVID-19: Policies and Institutions for Mitigating the Crisis summarised their findings as follows:
“The COVID-19 crisis threatens decades of progress for women and girls, disproportionately impacting women’s incomes, employment, and education opportunities, while increasing pressures of unpaid care and fueling the “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence. Countries should deploy gender-responsive policies and budgeting, which will help to mitigate the short-term impacts, while also addressing long-term structural drivers of gender inequality. Failing to do so risks long-term scarring and harms the prospects for gender responsive recovery.”
The COVID-19 crisis threatens decades of progress for women and girls, disproportionately impacting women’s incomes, employment, and education opportunities,
Burnout among women is taking its toll
A Stanford University news article published in March 2022 reveals that not only have key sectors been affected, but pandemic burnout is leading to devastating consequences for women. According to interviewee, Stanford Sociologist, Shelley Correll: “Unless employers act now, burnout is likely going to either drive women out of the paid workforce entirely or cause them to dial back their careers, potentially setting back gender equality by a whole generation.”
“To reduce burnout, leaders need to be clear in their messaging that they don’t expect people to be on call 24/7, and they need to put policies in place to ensure employees are getting time away from work.”
Suggesting how organisations might address burnout Correll says: “To reduce burnout, leaders need to be clear in their messaging that they don’t expect people to be on call 24/7, and they need to put policies in place to ensure employees are getting time away from work. But what we’ve seen happen is leaders instate a policy to reduce burnout and then managers implement it in ways that run counter to the policy’s goals. I was speaking at one company where someone said, “Things have gotten much better at our company since our CEO said that we’re not going to have any Zoom meetings on Friday. Everybody feels better and we’re not as burned out anymore.” But then another employee from the same company said, “Not my manager. My manager says Friday would be a good day for us to have meetings because nobody else is asking for meetings that day.” This manager’s behaviour clearly undermines the policy.”
The state of women in the workplace hangs in the balance
In their paper, Women @ Work 2022, Deloitte reveals the outcome of a survey of 5000 women across 10 countries that, “provides a unique glimpse into the lives of women in the workplace, showing a worrying longer-term impact with respondents reporting widespread burn out.” Here are some of the survey headlines:
Despite shifting work arrangements, women report burnout and stress at alarming levels
- 53% say their stress levels are higher than they were a year ago
- 46% feel burned out
- 33% have taken time off work due to mental health challenges
- 39% feel comfortable disclosing mental health challenges as the reason for their absence
The Great Resignation* is set to continue
Women are more likely to be looking for a new role than they were a year ago, and burnout is the top driving factor.
- Nearly 40% of women actively looking for a new employer cited burnout as the main reason
- Over 50% of women want to leave their employer in the next two years
- Only 10% plan to stay with their current employer for more than five years
- 38% of women find their work-life balance very poor
Hybrid working: an opportunity for change—but challenges exist
While the hybrid way of working presents opportunities—including, if done right, enabling many to maintain the flexibility that remote working can afford—it also creates a risk of exclusion for those not physically present. For those working hybrid here are the findings:
- 58% feel excluded from meetings and interactions
- 45% don’t have enough exposure to leaders
- Only 36% have clear expectations around where/how they work
Harassment and microaggressions are on the rise—and often go unreported
The majority of women (59%) have experienced harassment and/or micro-aggressions over the past year at work. This number has increased since Deloitte’s 2021 report (52%).
- 31% of non-inclusive behaviours are reported
- 93% of women believe their employer will not take action if they report non-inclusive behaviours
- 93% of women believe reporting non-inclusive behaviours will impact their careers
Inclusive, supportive organisations gain a competitive advantage
Women who work for these companies report far higher levels of engagement, trust, and career satisfaction, as well as more positive experiences with hybrid working and lower levels of burnout. They also plan to stay with their employers longer.
What can be done to begin to redress the erosion of gender equality?
McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report finds: “Despite this added stress and exhaustion, women are rising to the moment as stronger leaders and taking on the extra work that comes with this: compared with men at the same level, women are doing more to support their teams and advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.”
“…women are doing more to support their teams and advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts...”
The report goes on to opine that leaders need to step up to support employee wellbeing and diversity, equity, and inclusion programmes – this work should be recognised by the top echelons of the organisation, downwards. Currently, relatively few companies formally recognise employees who go above and beyond in these areas—and this needs to change. As an outcome, when managers support employee wellbeing and companies prioritise DEI, employees are happier, less burned out, and less likely to consider leaving their jobs.
Click here to access the full McKinsey report.
*The ‘Great Resignation’, also known as the ’Big Quit’ and the ’Great Reshuffle’, is an ongoing economic trend in which employees have voluntarily resigned from their jobs en masse, beginning in early 2021. Possible causes include wage stagnation amid rising cost of living, long-lasting job dissatisfaction, safety concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the desire to work for companies with better remote-working policies. Some economists have described the Great Resignation as akin to a general strike. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Resignation
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon: https://www.pexels.com/photo/word-equality-spelled-on-clay-3859982/