Women are Getting Left Behind by the Pandemic (Part 3)—How to Have the Right Conversations at Work

“Any society that fails to harness the energy and creativity of its women is at a huge disadvantage in the modern world.”

  • Tian Wei

In 2020, the UN released a policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on women worldwide. 

And here’s what they found:

Globally, women spend three times as many hours as men in unpaid care and domestic work. And with kids learning at home, they’re managing school, households, and their own jobs. 

They also represent the majority of front-line workers.

Yet the pay gap is still stuck at 16%, and women are more likely than men to be unemployed due to the pandemic—or to be singled out for layoffs and pay cuts.

It’s up to all of us to address this situation and today, let’s talk about how.

To employers: pay attention, and start conversations with women on your team so they don’t have to.

To women in the workforce: use these as talking points with your boss if you get to this article before they do.

This is Part 3 of our series on COVID’s impact on women. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

COVID’S GLOBAL IMPACT ON WOMEN

Here are just a few examples of how the global pandemic has unequally impacted women:

  • Mothers spend 10 hours a day, on average, taking care of their kids. With an optimal 8 hours for sleep, that leaves just 6 hours a day for anything else … including work. For full-time workers, that’s impossible math in a 5-day workweek—IF that workweek was even limited to 40 hours.
  • Women are more likely than men to have lost their job due to the pandemic, and data suggests that mothers in particular are being singled out for layoffs and pay cuts. WTF???
  • The number of women in the workforce is at its lowest since 1988—2.3 million women are now unemployed, compared to 1.8 million men.
  • Women represent most front-line workers in health care and other impacted industries like retail and foodservice.

And the UN’s report confirms a disturbing trend across Europe and North America:

When the world went into lockdown back in 2020, women assumed most childcare duties—but they were also more likely to experience pay cuts or layoffs.

Understanding the problem is just the first step.

Now that we know what’s going on, how do we fix it?

ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

The effects of this pandemic might show up for women on your team in different ways than they’re showing up for you—regardless of your gender.

Cultivate the practice of watching out for signs of stress outside the office.

They might be the sole caregiver for kids at home, or for sick or aging family members.

They might have lost loved ones, and be wading through grief and overwhelm.

They might be experiencing unprecedented levels of impact, regardless of gender identity. Though for this article, we’re keeping our focus on women.

There’s a difference between an employee with consistently sloppy performance and someone who’s been noticeably suffering post-COVID. 

You might have no idea what they’re experiencing when their laptop is closed. And all of it can impact their ability to deliver the results you’re used to getting.

So learn to ask.

Before letting a female team member go because her numbers have declined post-pandemic, take the time to dig in. Ask more questions. 

How is she coping with things, at work and at home? What support does she need from you?

Often, just a little bit of flexibility can relieve some of the stress. And that flexibility could simply mean openness to talking about their experience(s).

You won’t know unless you ask.

ACTIONABLE IDEAS

Is current performance the most important thing to you, as an employer? Or is it the continuity and longevity of a consistently great team?

Of course we all expect excellence from our employees—and even the best people on our teams could use some empathy when times get tough.

We often expect a degree of tolerance or acceptance when things go sideways in OUR lives, because we know it’s an anomaly. 

And if you’re one of those people who thinks that NEVER showing vulnerability or a dip in performance when life hands you a shit sandwich, some quiet reflection to address that degree of rigidity wouldn’t be a bad idea.

For the rest of us, regardless of how empathetic we may be with friends and family, sometimes we forget to use the same emotional tools at work.

Here are a few ways to meet your female employees where they are during this unprecedented time:

  • Be flexible with scheduling, especially for working moms. Men who work from home are statistically shown to spend less time each day helping with child care—don’t neglect this detail when you’re considering your team.
  • Provide extra personal days so one parent can step in for the other when it’s necessary, or consider a 4-day workweek. 
  • Pause or slow down any long-term initiatives that aren’t truly important.
  • Prioritize communication. Many women—especially moms—aren’t comfortable asking for the flexibility they need, especially when childcare is involved. Be the one to bring these candid conversations to the table.
  • How you do anything is how you do everything. Model equity and fairness in all of your decisions across the board, and you’ll create a culture of advocacy, not divisiveness. 
  • Educate your employees. Don’t limit open and honest conversation to one-to-ones. Ensure that your whole team communicates about at-home impact, not just management.

To be clear—COVID isn’t a reason to overlook consistently lousy performance. Your team should still be held accountable for executing to their job descriptions and their goals.

But work and life aren’t in tidy separate bubbles, and pretending they are doesn’t help anyone.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Businesses have an obligation to their female employees as they shoulder both work AND childcare, especially while navigating a pandemic.

Don’t be a passive observer of a problem that could be a massive setback to the women on your team. Take active steps to root out inequity in your organization.

If every business owner took an active role in addressing this situation, the ripple effect would be geometric in impact.

Of course you aren’t going to solve a global problem by yourself—and it’s not woo-woo mysticism to think that your commitment to doing something will have an impact far beyond the boundaries of your company.

Foster a culture of open communication, and do your best to provide flexibility, even if it means shifting working hours around a bit.

For many of us, we just need the tasks done—as long as deadlines are met, how important is it if it gets done at 8AM or 8PM, if it is done and correct?

Think about what’s actually important, and what just seems that way. Hint: it’s not policing a 40+-hour workweek. It’s getting the work done—and protecting and supporting your best people.
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