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3 ways to reduce gender inequality in the workplace post COVID-19

This image shows women working on a factory line to illustrate the need to reduce gender inequality in the workplace

Reducing gender inequality in the workplace after COVID-19 is a challenge. Image: Photo by Remy Gieling on Unsplash

Inderpreet Sawhney
General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, Infosys
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The professional and financial lives of women across the globe have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19.
  • While governments, international organizations and public-sector agencies play their respective roles in reducing gender inequality, the private sector can also cut the inequalities faced by women in the workforce.
  • COVID-19 derailed the progress towards gender parity in the workplace, but this gender inequality can be addressed through mentoring, care infrastructure and financial literacy.

When describing the world’s collective experience in these COVID-19 pandemic years, terms such as difficult, unprecedented and life-altering are so common that they lose their impact.

As the world navigates a new normal, our desire to move forward and close the pandemic chapter is strong, but doing so glosses over the reality that the story of pandemic consequences is still being written. While anyone would be hard-pressed to find a person untouched by those consequences, women across the globe continue to feel the impact of the pandemic on their professional and financial lives. Now, the private sector is positioned to help revise the story before it goes to final print.

Women are disproportionately represented in industries that are expected to decline the most in 2020 due to COVID-19
Image: McKinsey & Company

COVID-19 had a 30+ year impact on women

The focus on closing the global gender gap in areas such as women’s economic participation and opportunity is not new. In fact, the fervour with which it is being pursued by many countries, industries and companies has grown. And the effort translated to results: pre-2020 trends showed the global gender gap closing and it was projected to end within 100 years.

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  • Global Gender Gap Report 2022

Enter COVID-19. The pandemic negatively impacted women much more than men: while women constituted approximately 39% of the global workforce, they suffered 54% of the job losses. They also bore a disproportionate share of childcare responsibilities: a University of Arkansas study of the pandemic’s impact in the US found that one in three working mothers in two-parent households were solely caring for their children; compared with one in ten working fathers.

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While the disproportionate division of household and childcare responsibilities existed pre-pandemic, with women bearing the brunt, often to the detriment of their career opportunities, the pandemic worsened it when households had to take on homeschooling, full-time childcare and navigating frequent closures and quarantines even when schools and childcare facilities were open.

HBR’s national survey of more than 2,550 working parents found that 20% had to quit or reduce work hours because they did not have access to childcare. And, 33% of respondents said that the decision of which parent would quit or work fewer hours depended on “who was better at it,” not any other objective criteria in terms of job stability, income or hours worked. This led to the authors concluding that “gender roles still loom large in household decision-making.” The same study found that 26% of women who stopped working did so because they lacked childcare.

Two years into the pandemic, the World Economic Forum's analysis has found that the time to gender parity is no longer less than 100 years. The cost to women’s opportunities has pushed gender equity an entire generation into the future. The Global Gender Gap Report 2022 now projects the gender gap will not close for 132 years. The repercussions of this slide will not be felt by women alone. Left unaddressed, COVID-19’s impact on women could shrink the global economy by a trillion dollars by 2030.

Global Gender Gap report 2022
Global Gender Gap report 2022 Image: World Economic Forum

While governments, international organizations and public sector agencies play their respective roles in increasing gender parity, the private sector can also help reduce gender inequality in the workforce.

Intentional mentoring to help bridge the gap

Providing a safe and confidential environment where women can discuss their challenges and aspirations with a mentor can make a big difference to their professional lives. The mentor can guide them in their career, teach them how to deal with problems and help them maximize their potential. A study by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that mentoring programs hugely improve the promotion and retention rates of minority and women workers.

At Infosys, for example, the average number of training days for women employees exceeds that provided to men. This includes programs such as Women in Executive Leadership, an intervention to strengthen women in the leadership talent pipeline, and #IamTheFuture, organized by the Infosys Leadership Institute to accelerate their readiness for leadership roles.

Amazon Web Services has launched several initiatives, including a mentorship program, to reduce the gender gap and bring more women into senior roles. The program facilitates company-endorsed structured mentoring and voluntary mentoring by external mentors, including customers and partners. Some mentors have even taken a pledge to increase workforce diversity – for example, to recruit more women leaders or support the choices of women employees.

There is also a large unmet need for support and mentoring among women in business. Women own half of all businesses in the US, but account for only 27% of business loan applications. To support women business owners in their country, Canada’s Scotiabank launched The Scotiabank Women Initiative™ in 2018. This program has provided $3 billion in capital and extended mentoring and education to more than 6,000 entrepreneurs.

Strengthening the care infrastructure

Two years down the line, with childcare facilities costing more or having closed during the pandemic, there is a concern that women will be expected to continue to care for their children and, therefore, will not return to the formal workforce.

Employers must address this widening gender gap by providing an adequate care infrastructure. While many leading organizations offer daycare and even financial support for children's special needs – for example, speech or physical therapy – of employees’ children, the same can’t be said of all enterprises. There is a real need for essential industries that typically employ women from underprivileged segments to provide on-site childcare.

Other than providing physical infrastructure, employers must also look at increasing childcare subsidies and expanding childcare coverage to all parents with children up to the age of 18. Last, but not least, they should support the women employees by providing an environment that fosters engagement and belonging. Such measures will also benefit the organization by differentiating it from the competition and improving employee retention.

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Minding the financial literacy gap

Workplace gender inequalities extend to women’s ability to build or access financial resources. A factor in American women business owners’ low share in loan applications is inadequate financial literacy. The FINRA Foundation’s National Financial Capability Study found a lack of financial knowledge in Americans in general and among women in particular. Only 22% of women, versus 39% of men, answered three financial literacy questions correctly. While, Togolese women have been running businesses for decades, but are not as successful in expanding them in the long run. A big reason for this is that women score consistently lower than men when it comes to financial literacy indicators, such as the ability to use financial decision-making tools.

There is a need for private sector participation in improving financial literacy among working women. Importantly, a financial literacy program must reflect the context of women in the workplace where it will run. HerMoneyTalks, a one-stop financial platform offering financial literacy, mentoring and advisory services exclusively for women, recognizes the need to build financial awareness, access and confidence among women and it guides them through financial transactions.

COVID-19 derailed the progress towards gender parity in the workplace. Consequences lie ahead unless this issue is addressed rapidly. Mentoring, care infrastructure and financial literacy can all make a positive impact.

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    Institutional update

    World Economic Forum

    May 21, 2024

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