There are endless pools of research proving what any working professional already should have known: Gender equity is a source of economic strength. The extent to which the workforce opens itself up to the contributions of women is the extent to which the economy, and the social ecosystem in which it exists, will thrive.
This article doesn’t have to reargue that point. However, it is time again to talk about workplace inequality, as the COVID-19 pandemic stands in stark contrast to much of the progress that we’ve made.
COVID-19: Unofficial Workloads
It’s no exaggeration to say we’ve all been affected by the global pandemic. Women, though, have been impacted in specific and intensified ways. Calculations from McKinsey & Company suggest that women, who make up only 39% of global employment, have suffered 54% of the job loss in the pandemic.
An accurate way to think of the situation is that many women have taken a pay cut and a larger workload. The virus has increased significantly the need for unpaid, familial care. We know that globally, women and girls are responsible for roughly 75% of uncompensated caregiving and domestic work that takes place in the home — roughly four hours and 25 minutes daily. Add to that stress the closure of day cares, the move to at-home school, the likelihood that other family members are facing economic or health insecurity, and the need to support aging parents who might be at a higher risk.
The societal value of those four hours and 25 minutes of a woman’s day can’t be overstated. And, when we’re talking about corporate participation, there is a balancing act that needs to be addressed. The last four quarters have weighed heavily on women’s shoulders across the globe. The task of recovery will be incomplete without conscious efforts to support the women in our corporate networks and to make the resources of recovery equitably accessible — a task that’s more difficult in practice than it seems on the surface.
Time Is a Resource
Every smart employer is turning its attention toward upskilling and reskilling opportunities. The pressures of the pandemic have asked every operation to pivot; even workers who have kept their role through the pandemic found that the requirements of their day-to-day operations have changed. Upskilling and reskilling are two of the most valuable investments an employer can make at a time like this one, increasing the competence of its existing teams without displacing talented workers and incurring the associated costs of recruiting and diminished corporate culture.
But human resources (HR) teams, training directors and professional development managers need to think carefully about the resources they introduce, as not all training programs are accessible. That each team member will have different learning preferences is a given, but women are more constrained through after-work or weekend hours than are their male counterparts. For women who are shouldering an eight-hour workday and a four-hour care schedule, an all-day weekend course comes at a much greater cost.
Integrated, internal training — in-house programs that run within the workday — are always a safe bet. Employers who choose this path can still offer great flexibility. They might give team members the option to sign up for different weeks or quarters, and team leaders might consider offering a range of different programs for employees to select from. There have been huge advancements in the training sector; countless courses are available for free online, and some companies have started investing in virtual reality (VR) to bring the training experience to life.
If offering training during work hours isn’t practical, there are still a number of steps learning and development (L&D) professionals can take to ensure that women are not taking on a larger training burden. Online courses that archive the lessons, enabling learners to sift through and engage with them at their leisure, are more accessible than scheduled sessions. Many employees might find it easier to consume a series of short, relevant and updated learning experiences than to participate in a long-term learning commitment.
Not all of this process needs to be guesswork — leaders should reach out to both the women and the men on their team and understand how the available training resources translate into their real lives.
Accessibility: A Thought Exercise
Let’s imagine that every member of the workforce had shouldered the extra caregiving workload over the course of the pandemic. What kinds of accommodations might we see as a result?
Employers have the power to change their team culture in a gender-inclusive direction. Dedicating resources toward family-friendly policies, such as supporting or providing child care, implementing more flexible meeting practices, or offering part-time options over the short term, might go a long way in supporting the work/life balancing act.
Rethinking performance reviews, offering different health or tax policies and, most importantly, asking for input regarding which workplace changes might be most urgent are a few steps every employer can take to support the women in their organization and, consequentially, to strengthen their workforce as a whole.
By now, the aims of the corporate world are aligned. Gender equity benefits corporate creativity, enterprise resilience, economic strength and societal prosperity. The mountain climb toward a full recovery looms large. Questioning the accessibility of our resources and corporate practices is the best way of joining forces at the beginning and of tackling the task of recovery equitably, leaving no stone unturned.