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The COVID-19 pandemic has threatened to derail progress made across several elements of global development.
Whether it be halting the annual gender pay gap report in the UK last year, global economic downturn and rising unemployment or humanitarian issues such as diverting attention away from the climate crisis – several key actions, discussions and accountabilities pertained to sustainable development have fallen victim to the dominance of COVID-19.
This is not something which can be begrudged, seeing as the implementation of measures to contain and combat the virus has been very much a global priority across the past 12 months, and rightly so. However, when you peel back the layers as to whether the impact has been equal between male and women from a career perspective, you begin to realise that there could well be some discrepancies – the kind of which we cannot afford to ignore or risk winding back the clock on workplace equality and undermining several years of slow, but steady progress.
It is well documented that the pandemic has impacted women disproportionately to men in career terms. From job losses and redundancies to heightened work-life pressures and anxieties, women (and particularly mothers) are arguably facing the brunt of the COVID-19 fallout when it comes to their career.
Nearly 60% of women around the world work in the informal economy, which has witnessed damage since the first lockdown restrictions were put in place. Women in these industries earn less, save less and are facing a greater risk of poverty. Industries which are statistically dominated by women, such as the garment industry, hospitality industry, real estate industry and education sector are being pulled apart.
As the global economy suffers, millions of women’s jobs have disappeared. In America for example, women accounted for 100% of the 140,000 jobs lost in December, whilst it was reported that men gained 16,000 according to a report by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).
The closure of schools and childcare facilities has also hit women hard, with University College London reporting that women spent more than twice as much time as men home-schooling during the lockdown. This gives rise to the notion that women are feeling pressured to alter their career path in order to cope with the demands of COVID-19 restrictions. Approximately one in five working mothers surveyed in the summer of 2020 said they considered dropping out of the workforce, at least temporarily – compared with 11% of fathers. An additional 15% of mothers reported considering cutting their hours or switching to a less-demanding role. Among women with young children, the struggle is especially acute: nearly a quarter say they may take a leave of absence or quit altogether. What’s more, new stats reveal that 71% of working mothers have had their request for flexible furlough rejected. With each damning statistic we are able to join up the dots. Women are facing the impracticality of increased unpaid domestic work, whilst balancing paid work with fewer flexibilities and support systems.
The first step to addressing this issue, as is often the case, stems from raising awareness. There have been several reports over the past 6 months which have alluded to the impact of COVID-19 to the detriment of women, yet there is little to suggest that things are changing. In fact, studies from a recently as two months ago are showing signs that this issue is worsening. The facts are there, but business leaders must use them to fully understand the situation facing women and to build better strategies to address them.
There are several stakeholders involved in the empowerment of women. From business owners and employers who stand to benefit from a fully supported, equal workforce, to ambitious female employees. According to a recent study, more than 70% of executives believe that employee engagement and empowerment is key to organisational success, resulting in 22% higher productivity and more than twice as much annual net income. When you consider the fact working mothers are being denied flexible models and furlough, you wonder how any business can expect to get the best from a workforce which is feeling trapped, overwhelmed and disempowered.
There is also an onus on women to flag issues. So often there is a rhetoric that requesting flexibility is a sign of weakness – a sign that you are unable to fulfil your expectations. In truth, we are living through extraordinary times, which require extraordinary adjustments. It’s important to understand that requesting support where needed, or taking it when offered, is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of the times.
So often we call for policy level action, but with the furlough system implemented by the government –extended until at least April – it’s now a case of looking closer to home. From business leaders to employees, we all have a duty of responsibility for each other’s welfare. Supporting one another now is the key to keeping businesses and productivity sustainable in the future.
About the author
Natasha Mudhar is the founder of the global social impact enterprise The World We Want (WWW), launched to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs by 2030, through positive action, strategic communication and global connections. WWW unite and galvanise change-makers, organisations, non-profits, governments, businesses, celebrities, philanthropists and citizens to create a world ready and capable of positive action and change by converting awareness of global issues into real, meaningful action. They leverage the power of empathy, multi-stakeholder collaborations, launching global communications strategies, and applying creative storytelling, to shape policies and priorities.
In 2021, WWW launched a new Humanifesto – ACT. BUILD. CHANGE. DO, a four-pillared blueprint forming the backdrop to inspire shape-shifting strategies, daring innovations, and amazing technological breakthroughs.
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