Has Covid-19 halted women’s progress in the workplace?

The pandemic has not only halting women’s progress in the fight for gender parity and equality at work but even reversed it
Has Covid-19 halted women’s progress in the workplace?

The “disproportionate impact” of the pandemic on women could undo some of the gains in gender equality in the labour market in recent decades and indeed exacerbate disparities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on everyone’s working life, but of increasing concern is new research that suggests it may have disproportionately affected women, not only halting women’s progress in the fight for gender parity and equality at work but even reversed it.

Siobhan O'Shea, Client Services Director at CPL and brand ambassador for the 'Future of Work Institute' said she believes the pandemic has had a “disproportionate impact” on women’s working lives for a number of reasons.

“What we have really seen is a tale of a dual economy,” she said.

“A lot of the sectors that have been the worst impacted are those that are quite heavily female-oriented sectors, sectors such as hospitality, retail, tourism.” Ms O’Shea points to a recent report by McKinsey & Company that found women’s jobs were 1.8 times more vulnerable to the Covid-19 crises than men’s, with women accounting for 54% of overall job losses though they account for just 39% of global employment.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned that the “disproportionate impact” of the pandemic on women could undo some of the gains in gender equality in the labour market in recent decades and indeed exacerbate disparities.

“Previous crises have shown that when women lose their jobs, their engagement in unpaid care work increases and that when jobs are scarce, women are often denied job opportunities available to men,” the ILO said.

Recent data from Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute suggests, pre-Covid, women performed on average, 13 more hours of housework a week and 10.7 more hours of unpaid care work than their male counterparts.

However, a survey of nearly 1,500 women by the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) in May revealed that some 85% of women believed their caring responsibilities had increased since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, suggesting they were further shouldering the burden of unpaid work.

Maura Quinn, Chief Executive of the Institute of Directors in Ireland said the pace of change on this issue isn’t as quick as hoped.

Maura Quinn, Chief Executive of the Institute of Directors in Ireland said the pace of change on this issue isn’t as quick as hoped.

“If you look at the situation earlier in the year where we were in full lockdown and children were at home, or there were elderly parents that needed support or caring, it was tending to fall to women more than the men, which has a knock-on impact on the general labour economy trends,” Ms O'Shea said.

Worryingly, the McKinsey & Company research also found that more than one in four women in the United States are contemplating “downshifting” their careers or leaving the workforce entirely.

Ms O’Shea said this would be a “very worrying consequence” of the pandemic and organisations need to be prepared to offer more flexibility and understanding during this challenging time.

“A lot of organizations are looking at mentoring, sponsorship and coaching programs that cater specifically to their female workforce to ensure they're nurturing that pipeline of talent, organizations who are concerned about losing female talent are really trying to think of everything they can do, to protect it,” she said.

President of Network Cork Barbara Nugent. 

President of Network Cork Barbara Nugent. 

The importance of cultivating female talent is crucial to ensuring women progress to senior positions in the workforce and to closing the gender pay gap - currently, 14.4% in Ireland, meaning women earn on average approximately 86 cents for every euro a man earns.

Statistics from the CSO show there were nearly double the number of men in managerial roles (66%) as women (34%) in the Irish workforce in the second quarter of 2020.

Separately, a new report published by Balance for Better Business, the Government established initiative tasked with examining the gender mix at the top of Irish business, found that just 27% of all new board appointments at Iseq listed companies in the last year were female.

Not a single woman was appointed to an executive director role in the 18 months to September 1 of this year.

The report also found that the target for all listed companies to have at least one woman on senior leadership teams by end of 2020 will be missed, with almost two in five (38%) listed companies still having no woman among senior leadership.

At the start of September, 22.4% of listed company directors were female, compared to just 14% when the initiative was established in 2018, indicating slight improvement.

Maura Quinn, Chief Executive of the Institute of Directors in Ireland said the pace of change on this issue isn’t as quick as hoped.

“There was initially strong change, up to 2019. It appeared that a number of boards were taking the issue seriously and beginning to address it. That has slowed considerably in the last 12 month period.” 

Ms Quinn said it was difficult to know whether Covid-19 has contributed to the slowing progress in this area, or whether people have “fallen back to old habits.” 

“I do think we should be seeing more progress and faster progress, and I think one of the key reasons we're not seeing it is that board appointments are still made through informal processes.” 

Ms Quinn said networking is something “men are very much better than women at” but also noted that women often don't have access to the same networks as men.

“From a practical point of view, if you've got a board that is primarily male, they will know other men. They won't know other women and in the case of a lot of board appointments, it's done on the basis of who do you know.” 

 “The big concern is that people have been primarily confined to working at home, their ability to go out and meet people has been significantly reduced. Presumably, it would make it even more difficult for women to come to the attention of people as suitable candidates for boards.” 

Barbara Nugent, who runs her own leadership consultancy business and has recently been appointed President of Network Ireland Cork, said she believes the “slowdown” in areas such as gender targets could be attributed to the fact many businesses are in “a holding pattern” presently.

“I can't see organizations making big strides in any direction, whether it's investment or promotions, until we know where we're going.” “Only time will tell the impact Covid has had, even in terms of the finances available in organizations to continue to move forward and try and pay people equally across the board,” Ms Nugent said, acknowledging she believes the impact of the pandemic will “make the struggle a little bit harder.” 

However, she warned that women could lose out when the time does come for appointments if they aren’t strategic about networking now.

“We need to switch our mindset. If this is the next normal, [we need to figure out] how to use it in a more strategic way.” Ms Nugent’s advice to women is to reach out beyond their own departments and seek mentorships from those in positions you aspire to.

“If you're looking to move forward in your career you need to know more about the whole business, and not just your area of the business. Sit down and list the people that you should be talking to and that should know you. You shouldn't be afraid to pick up the phone and look for mentors across the business and ask can you meet me once a month and give me some pointers?” 

“We need to be a bit more proactive about managing our careers rather than waiting for somebody to notice us.” Looking ahead to the New Year, Network Cork’s new president said it’s time to accept we are where we are and ask how we move forward.

“Stop waiting, stop not planning, grab a hold of 2021 and make a plan… if this is the ‘next normal’ then we need to start working with it and stop waiting for it to end.”

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