The first wave of the pandemic in 2020 saw a collapse in women’s employment. Since then, not enough of them have been returning to work. What explains this, and what can we do about it?
The first and most obvious reason is that women work disproportionately in sectors that were especially hard hit by Covid. Some, such as hospitality and retail, were affected by shutdowns. In others, such as health and social care, women were on the front lines of the crisis and working conditions became more stressful.
Our Resetting Normal Report for 2021 found that men and women had experienced the pandemic differently. Women were more likely than men to say they felt burned out (39% vs 36%), their mental wellbeing had declined (34% vs 29%) and they were anxious about returning to the office (46% vs 38%).
Another important part of the explanation is that in many societies women still bear the brunt of domestic care responsibilities. These increased dramatically as schools closed and families sought to protect elderly relatives from the virus by taking over more aspects of their care.
McKinsey and Lean In found that US mothers in a dual-career couple were more than twice as likely as fathers to say they’d taken on at least an additional five hours of household chores during the early stage of the pandemic. In two-income households where one partner gave up work, this was a woman in 80% of cases.
The continued burden of caregiving responsibilities still holds many women back from rejoining the workforce. Societies need to think much more seriously and imaginatively about how to address the often-prohibitive costs of childcare and elder care.
Getting more women into digital jobs
Women’s slow speed of return accentuates a growing problem that Covid accelerated: for years the digitalisation of the economy has been excluding women due to the longstanding, systemic gender deficit in students doing STEM degrees.
I worked for 30 years in the tech industry before joining Adecco, and I saw first-hand the difficulties women face: the more important digital roles become in the economy, the lower the share of important roles go to women. So how can we avoid the rapid shift to digital making women feel even more excluded? Here are four suggestions.
First, role models are important to mobilise girls to want to study technology. Many women, for example, are now working as scientists in law enforcement because they loved the character of Abby Scuito in NCIS. Astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to go into space with the US space program, said she was inspired by actress Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek – who, in turn, had been encouraged by Martin Luther King to continue the role so she could inspire others. We need more movies and TV shows featuring inspiring and powerful women as leaders and scientists. Gender equality starts with the arts.
Second, governments should accelerate regulatory action on wage discrimination – asking companies to prove that they are paying men and women equally for work of equal value – while investing in the care economy to enable women to return to work, and prioritizing women for upskilling and reskilling programmes.
For many years I was against positive discrimination, because I never wanted to wonder whether I had been promoted for my capabilities or my gender. But I have changed my mind because we cannot afford to wait: at the current rate of progress, we are not looking at only a generation to achieve gender equality in the economy – it’s 267 years.