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What Women Want (at Work) and the She-Cession

Behind every setback, an opportunity can be found. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a chain reaction of setbacks for women around the world, it’s also provided an opportunity to raise awareness about gender inequality in the labor market. New global research from ManpowerGroup sheds light on this, outlining how women’s career trajectories have been disproportionately impacted by COVID and why the risk of a “She-Cession” is real. 

It’s time to advance the global conversation about why a gender-aware response to COVID is necessary. Here’s why.

Equality maker or breaker? How the crisis impacts women
Men may have a higher COVID-19 fatality rate, but data indicates that women will bear the longer-term consequences of the economic and social crisis. With women’s employment 19% more at risk during the pandemic compared to men’s,[1] the dangers of occupational segregation and the informal economy have been exposed like never before.

Not only are women over-represented in many of the sectors most impacted by COVID-19—e.g., retail, hospitality, entertainment, travel and manufacturing—but they’re also more likely to work in the informal economy. This means women are far likelier to have lost their livelihood, lost income or experienced a drop in working hours.

The figures look a little different from country to country but tell a consistent global story. During the first month of the pandemic, the 740 million women who work in the informal economy lost an average of 60% of their income. This figure swelled to 81% in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and 70% in Europe and Central Asia, while women workers in Asia and the Pacific reported a 22% reduction in income.[2]

WFH may not be working for women
Work-from-home is good for women, right? Not so fast.

“It’s tempting to think that flexible work options will be a universal big equalizer for women,” says ManpowerGroup Chief Talent Scientist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. “Not always. Men are more likely to want to use the office for networking, women for collaborating and getting work done. Working from home could accelerate underlying inequality by further reducing opportunities for face-to-face networking.”

ManpowerGroup research found that women and men have dramatically differing attitudes about working from home and returning to a physical office post-pandemic. Women said they are more concerned about going back to the workplace and more appreciative of the office as a means of separating work from home. Meanwhile, men said they are more likely to want to be in the physical office for visibility and promotion and to say they feel relieved, happy and confident about a return to the workplace.

To prepare for a hybrid future that accommodates both remote and in-person workers, employers have to be careful to avoid a two-track workplace: men in the office, women at home, where they may miss out on informal networking and critical assignments. Such a disparity could also give rise to a new form of “presenteeism,” whereby employers make assumptions about their employees’ productivity and performance depending on whether they’re physically co-located or working remotely.

Employers can combat this by looking at the effects of remote working by level and whether or not it provides the same career benefits to the entry-level, mid-career, and executive roles. Most important is that employees are evaluated on their output and rewarded for what they actually contribute rather than for the show they put on.

Unpaid domestic work and the parent trap
With more than 1.5 billion children out of school worldwide,[3] many women workers must now double as school teachers and/or caregivers while working from home. Even before the pandemic, women took on the lion’s share of responsibility in caring for loved ones and doing unpaid domestic work. Now, gender equity in the household has grown even more lopsided.

Since the pandemic began, 56% of women globally have increased the time they spend on unpaid care work (compared to 51% of men), and 60% of women report spending an increased amount of time on unpaid domestic work (compared to 54% of men).[4]

In the U.S., mothers have reported spending 15 hours more per week than fathers on household tasks and education as compared to fathers.[5] And 1 in 3 mothers has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career because of COVID-19.[6]

Employers must understand that remote working does not occur in a vacuum and build flexibility into roles previously seen as inflexible. By taking active steps to challenge embedded assumptions about the gender-normative roles of mothers and fathers, those norms will be less likely to drive the way managers and colleagues perceive remote working by parents and what they expect of them.

Another must for women in today’s workforce: plenty of flexibility. Women want outcomes that allow them greater control over how and when they get work done. They expect employers to accommodate One Life, where work and home are integrated, rather than part of a balancing act.

Mind the leader gap
Ostensibly, it’s been a good year for women in positions of power. In May 2020, the number of women running Fortune 500 companies hit a new high[7] (although the fine print will tell you that that means that only 7% of companies on the 2020 Fortune 500 list are run by women). Meanwhile, women leaders—from New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern to Germany's Angela Merkel—won praise for their handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

And studies have continued to prove that women are good for business. In fact, companies with the most female officers have financial returns that are 34% better, and demonstrate enhanced productivity[8], share performance[9] and business results.[10] Before the pandemic, the number of women in senior management roles globally was gradually increasing. In 2019, it had grown to 29%, the highest number ever recorded.[11] And in the U.S., which has traditionally lagged behind the global average, representation in the C-suite grew from 17% to 21% from January 2015 to January 2020. Now, female leaders in the U.S. say they are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19-related burnout.

ManpowerGroup research is clear: When it comes to ascending to leadership positions, women aren’t looking for favors, just a level playing field. To accelerate the rise of women in leadership positions, employers can start by putting policies into place that directly address those things that established female leaders have said were the greatest obstacles throughout their career: lack of role models, gendered career paths, and a lack of access to sponsors and influential networks.[12]

2021 finds the workforce at an inflection point and many employers unsure about what steps they need to take to ensure gender parity within their own organization. In this new reality, ManpowerGroup is partnering with employers to help them commit to paying greater attention to the re-balancing of family care responsibilities and careers, to changing prevailing gender dynamics in the workplace, and to rethinking the way women work, are recognized and rewarded.

10 ways employers can progress gender parity in the new reality
Helping women upskill and adapt to a fast-changing world of work will be one of the defining challenges of our time. Now is the time to reset for the new reality and make the progress the next generation of women in the workplace need to see.

1. Know “the why.” Advancing toward gender parity in the workplace is far more than just “the right thing to do.” The data is clear: Companies with women at the top perform better.

2. Set women up for success. Recognize the obstacles women historically face at work—lack of role models, gendered career paths, and lack of access to sponsors and influential networks—and identify ways to remove each of these. This starts with active listening; the best bosses are asking women what they need to succeed.

3. Make work-from-home work. Understand that remote working does not occur in a vacuum. Find ways to build flexibility into roles previously seen as inflexible. Take active steps to challenge any embedded assumptions about the gender-normative roles of parents so that those norms do not drive the way managers and colleagues perceive remote working by men and women and what they expect of them.

4. Ask “why not?” Succession planning must be bolder. Instead of saying, “She doesn’t have the experience,” ask, “What do we need to make it work?” Challenge assumptions. If we think it is possible, we can make it possible.

5. Leadership needs to own it and measure it. To demonstrate commitment to getting women into leadership, change must be led from the top. Leadership must also be held accountable by making progress measurable.

6. Make it count. Leaders must know exactly where they need women to be. Looking at macro numbers is not enough. Articulate a talent legacy—how things will change and what it will look like by when. Plan for it as if it were a strategic business priority or investment. True change takes time, focus and discipline.

7. Focus on output. Upgrade your performance evaluation processes and metrics to ensure a focus on outputs and, crucially, do not include assessments from periods of lockdown when childcare was unavailable.

8. Identify adjacent skillsets for new roles, and importantly demonstrate how short bursts of training and upskilling can accelerate people from one job to the next.

9. Learnability will be the great equalizer. Now is the time to focus on helping employees develop technical skills at speed and scale, while also hiring people with learnability—the desire and ability to learn new skills. This can make a real difference in shaping a future in which everyone can be ready for high-growth roles.

10. Hire for soft skills. When looking for those employees with learnability, look for soft skills like communication, collaboration, creativity, curiosity. These are the most valued - and the hardest to find - human strengths in today’s job market and employees who have them make smoother transitions to new roles or careers.

The good news is that the future that women say they want for work is closer to what research indicates all workers want—more flexible, virtual, trusting and integrated. More equal.

Download our Leadership, Skills and the She-Cession - What's Next for Progress to Parity? infographic here