Rising women in the workforce has corresponded nicely with rising GDP and business profits over the last several decades. Now, the COVID-19 recession is threatening that progress, and the gender diversity efforts of employers.
Not since 1948 has the female unemployment rate hit double digits, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The pandemic hurts working women on two primary fronts: By disproportionately forcing layoffs in female-heavy industries like hospitality, and by taking away many of the caregiving alternatives that have driven gains in workplace equality.
The first may be beyond the control of any one employer, but the second can be helped, at least a little. By understanding the realities of caretaking during COVID-19 and accommodating them, employers can keep their female talent.
They can also spare themselves the worst of the so-called “shecession,” the economic impact of which is still being totaled. In a new report, McKinsey underlines the real risks of women exiting the workforce, from the potential $1 trillion impact on global GDP to the harm it could cause individual businesses: “Companies now pulling back on diversity and inclusion may be placing themselves at a disadvantage in terms of resilience and the ability to recover from the current crisis.” And that’s something no business can afford.
Why COVID-19 increases the ‘motherhood penalty’
To combat the “first female recession,” we have to look at what’s driving it. Much of what’s classified as gender bias can more accurately be called motherhood bias. The wage gap, for example, is far wider for working mothers than it is for working women without children.
There are a number of reasons for this, including choices some mothers may voluntarily make. Still, women are saddled with an average of 75% of unpaid care work in the world, per the same McKinsey report. And when child care collapses under a pandemic, that uneven workload grows more unevenly.
The pandemic has added hours of child-rearing and homeschooling to the usual household chores, and the bulk of that work falls on mothers, or grandmothers willing to help their adult children. Faced with already stretched schedules, many see no choice but to step back from work — or out of the workforce altogether.
Undermine the gender gap by accepting caretaking into the workday
Even if businesses could afford to provide child care for every employee, the threat of exposure would likely make it logistically impossible. And child care is only one way working women are tasked with extra caretaking responsibilities. Elder care for ailing parents, offering a hand with grandchildren, checking in on siblings, much of the work of maintaining a family falls to women at the end of the day.
Instead of bemoaning the difficulty of a perfect solution, embrace the imperfect ones. Employers do have the ability to recognize the extra load women are performing under and practice compassion. A few simple, family-friendly policies can go a long way to making women feel welcome despite the circumstances.
1. Normalize family interruptions
So many women feel pressure to hide their job as parents, thinking it will undermine their role as professionals. It’s always been a difficult trick to pull off, but in the flattened world of work-from-home, it’s fully impossible.
Instead of encouraging women to keep up a charade on top of all the other work they’re doing, prove that there’s no penalty for being a caretaker. Leaders can do this simply by pulling back the curtain on their own lives and showing that they also get called on to find the charging cable or change the diaper throughout the day. For colleagues without children, simply encouraging parents to take the time they need for family first — or following their lead and ignoring background antics — will create a true sense of inclusion. That comfort and honesty is the first and most important step.
2. Allow employees to set flexible schedules
Remote work takes away the serendipitous encounters and easy check-ins colleagues can share in an office. Why not let it take away the strictly kept office hours as well? It’s worth assessing whether people need to be available at exactly the same times, especially for the parents juggling remote schooling or varied nap times.
Employers should make it their goal to get the best hours of work out of their people, not necessarily the most contiguous or standard hours. Having honest conversations with every employee about what they’re juggling and when may open up opportunities to make small shifts in the schedule that net big shifts in performance.
3. Offer part-time and sabbatical options
Not everyone will be able to make a full day work around their caretaking obligations, despite the best intentions. Supporting a part-time schedule brings that reality into the open and gives employees and employers a way to address it head-on to everyone’s benefit.
For some, caretaking will need to be a full-time job. That doesn’t mean that it’s a permanent one, however. Offering a sabbatical gives employees the chance to be honest about what needs their focus. Better to give people the space to manage family concerns and come back to the office when they’re able than to force them to juggle both poorly — or to leave their work altogether.
4. Reconsider performance metrics
This last tactic is also the hardest. No business wants to admit that productivity may simply be down during the pandemic. But going off legacy measures, it may be. Instead of penalizing employees for not meeting a rubric that’s no longer relevant, consider what matters most to your company now, and determine how to measure employees’ contributions to that.
5. Support working women by shining a light on working men
It may seem counterintuitive, but supporting caretaking while working generally, and specifically for men, may be one of your best tools for retaining women. If both genders can equally share the increased burden of care, it keeps the work from overwhelming any one person.
Though the motherhood penalty is real and measurable, many men also feel like they’ll face a penalty if they show themselves as fathers first. Normalizing caretaking for men will help people in any number of family structures manage the new demands COVID-19 places on personal lives. It may also be the biggest step employers can take toward gender equity.
Fighting the ‘first female recession’
It’s in business leaders’ best interest to fight any drag on economic performance anywhere they can, including in the home. Though gender equity is the honorable thing to work for, it’s also the fiscally smart one: Gender diverse companies perform better on average than male-dominated peers.
Every business is forced to grapple with the economic impacts of COVID-19, but none is forced to accept them at face value. A little compassion and flexibility can create new opportunities to support workers and counteract the worst effects of the pandemic.
Visit our Care in Crisis resource center to find more ways to support your employees during times of uncertainty like the first female recession. And when your organization is ready for a comprehensive approach to well-being, learn about the Limeade Well-Being platform.