Coronavirus Layoffs Could Erase Many of Women’s Workplace Gains
Research suggests women are more likely to lose jobs in layoffs. Here's why and how to prevent this from happening.
As the health impacts of the coronavirus continue to be felt around the world, so are the economic consequences. The latest assessment by the International Labour Organization estimates an increase in global unemployment of almost 25 million as a result of the crisis—a number equivalent to the entire population of Australia.
As companies across all sectors face gut-wrenching decisions to lay off workers or eliminate positions, how will they decide who stays, and who goes? Will they consider not just position and wage, but also skills, capabilities, and potential? How about curiosity, intellect, and work ethic?
And will they consider gender?
Unfortunately, much of the research shows that when companies downsize, diversity becomes secondary—even if it were previously treated as a priority. This is grim news for women and people of colour in particular.
Over the past two decades, women have been making steady progress across many sectors of our economy, yielding important educational, financial, and societal outcomes. The research is clear that when women work, they thrive—and everyone benefits.
Yet in times of economic crisis, leaders are forced to make rapid decisions in the name of saving their companies. In principle, this decision-making should benefit all workers, or at least all genders, equally. But research shows us otherwise: Despite the gains made by women in the workplace, the majority remain in positions that are too often seen as dispensable.
In this particular crisis, we face a real risk that women will lose the vast majority of jobs now—and will not regain them in the same measure as the economy comes back. We cannot let this happen.
What can companies do today, before the many job loss decisions have been made, to guard against this disproportionate impact on women? What can leaders do to protect the gains for women at work made over many decades? Catalyst—a global non-profit with the mission to advance progress for women at work—recommends three important steps.
First, get the data. Analyze your workforce metrics to understand gender breakdown by job. Understand who you are cutting. And why. And then keep a record. According to The Atlantic, this pandemic could be the first outbreak where gender and sex differences are recorded—and then taken into account by future researchers and policymakers to guard against inequitable gender outcomes when the next crisis comes.
Next, if you are eliminating positions that skew to women disproportionately, ask yourself these questions:
- Can we redeploy our high-potential women into other jobs so that we can retain the best talent inside the company?
- Can we exit our low-performers and open up roles for high-performing women who would otherwise lose their jobs?
- Have we considered all creative cost-cutting strategies such as reduced workweeks, job-sharing, and decelerating pay decreases to keep more women working?
Finally, plan now to rebuild with women in mind. While the severity of this crisis is unknown, we must not lose sight of the promise of recovery and the rebuilding that will need to take place. As you plot your people strategy, consider these questions:
- How did we treat our women employees during the downturn? Are we a desirable place for women to work?
- What kinds of meaningful opportunities are we going to make available to women when the economy begins to turn upward?
- How do we ensure that our hiring systems are free of bias so that women, regardless of their race or ethnicity, will be considered on an equal footing to men as we begin to rehire?
Leading companies around the world have worked hard to break barriers and build environments where women can thrive at work. Rather than lose this momentum, let’s redouble our efforts to preserve and protect these gains.
Executive Director, Canada
As Executive Director, Tanya van Biesen is responsible for the growth of Catalyst in Canada, working closely with CEOs, senior executives, and Supporter organizations across the country to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion. She is a recognized and accomplished executive with more than 20 years of experience in the…