The workplace has long been a playground for inequality, and it is no secret that discrimination, in its varying forms, when left to fester, disrupts and corrupts the structural integrity of every type of work environment, at all levels.
Moreover, times of crisis often provide clarity and tend to cultivate a frenetic yet collective sense of urgency to divert and placate the risk of harm. They also expose the vulnerabilities of others, to the point where we have a responsibility to address them. Whilst we were all vulnerable during the pandemic, it became abundantly clear that our ability to mitigate the consequences of Covid were decidedly unequal. Whether it be inner-city communities falling victim to outbreaks whilst their suburban counterparts escaped to infinitely spacious holiday homes, or a disproportionate number of women opting to leave the workplace in order to provide childcare; what some viewed to as a great equaliser, in fact, exposed our most shameful, alarming and deeply rooted injustices, including in the workplace.
For women, specifically unfair treatment at work is not a new problem. However, the global pandemic hastened the rumblings of a long-overdue shift in the way we hold our business leaders accountable, and in our willingness to outwardly condemn injustice in our professional lives. Though no two women are the same, our experiences often intersect; and whilst movements such as Me Too and Times Up have been monumental in shedding light on the age old, yet largely unspoken understanding that all women have, do, or will experience discrimination at work, Covid-19 also played a significant role.
For example, according to a study by Mckinsey, though “all women have been impacted [by the pandemic] three major groups have experienced some of the largest challenges: working mothers, women in senior management positions, and Black women”. Furthermore, it was reported in the same study that 1 in 4 women were considering “leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, compared to 1 in 5 men” as a result of household responsibilities, such as childcare, falling into the hands of mothers in “heterosexual dual-career couples”.
Despite conversations around the difficulties women face in the workplace gaining momentum before Covid hit, with the gender pay gap and the culture of sexual harassment largely at the centre, the pandemic forced the hand of businesses when it came to urgently address a much wider range of embedded issues. Whether it be smoothing out kinks in operational structures, reimagining workflows to maximise efficiency, investing in technology to support remote working, re-mapping boundaries to protect work-life balance, or handling employees who were re-evaluating their professional purpose, the necessity for change brought the question of equality to the fore.
When gauging if said shifts have had any meaningful impact on women, it’s important to look at the industries most affected by Covid, and the demography of their employees. For example, during the pandemic the service and hospitality sectors took a huge hit; two industries where women account for a large share of employees, and as a result were disproportionately impacted. This is a prime example of how having an equally balanced workforce would offset female skewed job loss.
Similarly, according to the same study carried out at Northwestern University, when a two-income household is forced to shed work in order to provide childcare, the responsibility usually falls to the lower-earning partner, which is the case of “dual income heterosexual partnerships, (in the US) is usually the female”. Another tangible example of how the pay gap reinforces the harmful and restrictive notion of gender roles.
The reality is that women today face the same issues at work as they have done for many years and that in truth Covid likely left women slightly worse off than before. The most significant change is that assuring equality now occupies a fixed space in our shared consciousness.
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