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COVID-19's impact on women in the workforce is yet to be fully realised

The full impact of COVID-19 on women's progress at work has not yet been realised, with huge consequences for gender equality.

That's according to PWC's Women in Work Index, which argued that the negative impacts of the pandemic are disproportionately being felt by women and if nothing is done to address this, more women will leave the workforce permanently. 

It found that women were losing their jobs at a faster rate than men, and the pandemic was increasing the unequal burden of unpaid care and housework carried out by women. 

Between 2019 and 2020, the OECD unemployment rate increased by 1.7 percentage points for women, from 5.7% in 2019 to 7.4% in 2020.

Women also spent an average of 7.7 more hours per week on unpaid childcare than men than in 2019, in some cases up to 31.5 hours of extra work per week which almost equals an extra full-time job. 

The Index measures female economic empowerment across 33 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

Economic empowerment is measured by five key metrics in the Index: labour force participation, participation rate gap between male and female, gender pay gap, female full-time rate and female unemployment rate. 

The UK was ranked sixteenth in 2019 against OECD countries and second across the G7, yet PWC estimated that progress for women in work will fall to 2017 levels by the end of 2021. 

Despite performing well in female labour force participation, the UK lagged behind other countries in its share of female employees in full-time employment.

In 2019, just 64% of women in work were in full time employment compared with 89% of men. 

The Index also found that female-dominated industries are bearing the brunt of lockdown restrictions and if current UK furlough data leads to future unemployment, a larger number of women will face the risk of job loss than men once the schemes end. 

Workplace gender equality: 

Women work harder but progress less at work

More women working full time and retiring later 

Women’s work/life balance progress has been stalled due to coronavirus


What can HR do?

HR professionals often tout remote and more flexible work as a way to combat a lack of female progression in the workplace given it can lead to more diverse teams and lend itself to gender equality.

According to global mobility platform Topia’s Adapt survey, 94% of HR professionals said that their organisations would be able to create a more diverse team thanks to flexible work.

Topia’s survey also found that the top priority for female respondents in the UK is the opportunity for career growth (57%).

Arne van Damme, HR futurist at software provider Unit4, said that while flexible working could open up organisations to far more diverse talent pools, it is crucial that adopting a more flexible mindset and culture towards ways of working is backed up by a formal structure and policies.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “While employees will appreciate the ability to work in different ways, they will also want the reassurance of having regular check-ins with their managers, the ability to connect and collaborate with their colleagues and still have a very clear sense of a career path.

“Breaking down traditional structures can be disorientating for employees, so it is important not to remove entirely the support they are used to.”

Damme added that it is critical that leaders over-communicate with their teams, particularly when it addressing diversity and inclusion. 

He said: “Even though they may be physically disconnected from a traditional office environment, it is important leaders emphasise the importance in the company culture of gender equality.”