5 Challenges Women Face in the New, Uncertain Workplace—and What Leaders Can Do to Help (Blog Post)
5 Challenges Women Face in the New, Uncertain Workplace
By Lorraine Hariton, President & CEO, Catalyst
It’s no secret that gender equity has taken a major step backward during the pandemic. Globally, women lost more than 64 million jobs in 2020—or 5% of all jobs held by women—according to Oxfam International. Women’s labor participation in the US hit a 33-year low in January 2021.
Even as economies reopen, and some businesses staff up, women are still facing some of the biggest challenges to workforce participation in decades. Many of these challenges predate the pandemic—but the Covid-19 crisis has significantly exacerbated them and forced many women, particularly women of color, out of the workplace entirely.
The future remains uncertain—and many businesses are now reevaluating their return-to-office plans in response to the Delta variant. But despite this uncertainty, one thing is clear: Women are facing a crisis whose impact will extend long after the pandemic is over.
No matter how your office is approaching the current pandemic reality, leaders have a unique ability to right the structural and systemic wrongs that have long created inequities for women at work. To help, we’ve created a list of five major challenges women continue to face in the new workplace—and actions leaders can take to advance gender equity.
1. Insufficient childcare and caregiving support.
The pandemic exposed and exacerbated women’s time spent on unpaid household and caregiving responsibilities. Globally, women spent three times as many hours on unpaid childcare last year than men—an average of 173 additional hours versus 59.
A Catalyst-CNBC survey also revealed that 41% of mothers working in the US said they believed they had to hide their caregiving struggles from their employer. The lack of a strong childcare infrastructure in the US—particularly for young children—created significant challenges for women after both schools and childcare facilities shut down.
Unequal distribution of caregiving, and lack of support from employers, will remain a barrier for women at work even after the pandemic. Offering flexible work options—such as the ability to work remotely or to have flexible hours throughout the day—is one way to lessen the burden. Creating a culture of empathy and psychological safety—where women can feel safe to share their need, for instance, to leave work early to take their child to the doctor—is another. Finally, consider expanding your parental leave options or other childcare benefits so that everyone has the time they need to care for children.
2. Lack of access to flexible and remote work.
Many companies are now returning to in-person work, either full- or part-time. But women with caregiving responsibilities may need to continue working remotely due to a lack of childcare options—many daycare centers closed permanently during the pandemic—and the high cost of care. Another US-based survey conducted in June 2021 found that 72% of parents say childcare is more expensive, and 46% say it is more difficult to find than before the pandemic.
For women who are impacted by a lack of childcare options, their ability to remain in the workforce, or return to it in the future, will depend on employer flexibility. A recent Catalyst survey found that women with childcare responsibilities who have remote-work access are 32% less likely to report intending to leave their jobs, compared with women with childcare responsibilities who do not have remote-work access. But remote and flexible work is not just important for caregivers—the pandemic showed that many kinds of employees benefit from and prefer these options.
Leaders must also ensure that women who choose to work flexibly have the same opportunities for advancement and visibility as those who work on-site. Consider building a remote-first culture and developing inclusive hybrid options—a combination of remote and in-person work—so that all employees, regardless of where or how they work, are set up for success.
3. A widening gender pay gap.
Before the pandemic, the gender pay gap typically cost women in the US $846 a month—or $10,157 a year. For most women of color, the annual loss was higher than for White women. Covid-19 exacerbated these inequities as a disproportionate number of women, particularly women of color, lost wages due to unemployment or reduced work hours.
As some women move back into the workforce, they may face a “pay penalty” as a result of their absence over the last year. One study found that women earn on average 7% less than men in the same position when returning to work after an extended absence.
When hiring or rehiring women employees, leaders must ensure they are paid equitably and not penalized for pandemic-related time off. Start with conducting regular pay equity analyses and evaluating your talent management systems for bias. Also, consider offering formal “returnship” programs to attract high-potential women back into senior roles.
4. Lack of sponsorship.
Women who stepped out of the workforce or had reduced work hours during the pandemic may also have trouble getting back on track in their careers. Having a sponsor—a senior leader who uses their influence to advocate for an individual’s advancement—can make a big difference, especially for women of color who may lack access to informal networking relationships.
As more women may opt to work remotely, sponsors will be critical to ensure that women are not overlooked for advancement opportunities. Leaders need to consider how women, particularly women of color, in their company could benefit from sponsorship and learn how to make the most of sponsor relationships.
5. Unconscious bias.
Unconscious bias is an implicit association or attitude—about race or gender, for example—that can influence an individual’s behavior toward a person or group of people. This bias is rooted racism, sexism, and other forms of marginalization that showed up in different ways during the pandemic. For example, women of Asian descent were the targets of coronavirus-related racism and violence. Black women working remotely faced the burden of code-switching in new ways to “optimize the comfort of others with the hopes of receiving fair treatment.”
None of these problems is going to go away after the pandemic. In fact, a return to in-person office environments presents its own fears and concerns about racism for women of color. Companies should not overlook these concerns.
Instead, leaders should listen to their employees, particularly employees of color, to understand what kinds of changes they want to see in the workplace. Leaders should also work to build more racially equitable workplaces, which includes addressing their own deep-seated unconscious biases, having difficult conversations across differences, and eliminating bias from hiring and talent-management decisions, to ensure that all women have equitable opportunities in the workplace.
In the reimagined workplace, these are the critical challenges women will face and that leaders must address. What actions on this list are you willing to take?
President & CEO
Lorraine Hariton is President and CEO of Catalyst, a global nonprofit working with the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Catalyst’s vision and mission to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion has been a lifelong passion for Lorraine. She is…