Strain on Female Workforce During COVID-19

Strain on Female Workforce During COVID-19

For working women across Australia the findings of a new study from Deloitte should come as no surprise, revealing the pandemic had a disproportionate effect on women as their workloads – at home and on the job – increased, their mental health suffered and many felt unsupported by their employer.

But there was a silver lining, as women working in companies with a genuinely inclusive culture reported higher levels of mental wellbeing, motivation, productivity, and loyalty to their employers.

While only four per cent of women reported working in an inclusive culture, the businesses leading the way demonstrate what must be prioritised to ensure women continue to thrive in the workplace.

Women @ Work: A global study found the increased burden on working women during the pandemic had devastating effects, with 51 per cent of those surveyed less optimistic about their career prospects than pre-COVID and 57 per cent planning to leave their employer within the next two years.

A lack of work-life balance was cited as the number one reason and a quarter of women surveyed said  they were also considering leaving the workforce altogether.

Additionally, the survey found a 35-point drop in mental health and a 29-point drop in motivation at work compared to before the pandemic.

The study surveyed 5,000 women across 10 countries, including Australia, from November 2020 to March to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s personal and professional lives.  The results revealed a stark reality as gender equality regressed during the pandemic.

“The last year has been a ‘perfect storm’ for many women facing increased workloads and greater responsibilities at home, a blurring of the boundaries between the two, and continued experiences of non-inclusive behaviours at work,” said Deloitte Global Inclusion Leader Emma Codd.

As women looked for support throughout the pandemic, employers failed to meet the moment and key findings showed:

  • 77 per cent of women reported their workload increased during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • 66 per cent said they had the greatest responsibility for household tasks
  • Only 22 per cent believed their employers helped them establish clear boundaries between work and personal time – and 63 per cent felt employers evaluated them based on the time they spent online versus the quality of their work
  • Only one third of women considered their mental wellbeing to be “good or “extremely good.” Compared to 68 per cent prior to the pandemic. Women identifying as LGBT+ and/or women of colour were more likely to report lower levels of mental wellbeing with work-life balance
  • 52 per cent of women had experienced some form of harassment or micro-aggression in past year

“Gender equality leaders” get it right and reap the benefits

According to Cobb, “while the adverse impact on women’s wellbeing, motivation, and engagement is obvious, our research also shows that some employers are getting it right: The women who work for these organisations are more engaged, productive, and satisfied with their careers.”

The small groups of employers who built inclusive, flexible, and high trust cultures to support women are called “gender equality leaders” (GEL), and results show the benefits to business are high:

  • 70 per cent of women who worked for GEL rated their productivity as “good” or “very good,” compared to just 29 per cent in lagging organisations (defined as businesses with a less inclusive, low-trust culture, which made up 31 per cent of the sample).
  • 72 per cent of women rated their job satisfaction as “good” or “extremely good,” compared with just 21 per cent of women who worked for lagging organisations.
  • 70 per cent of women planned to stay with their employers for two years or more, compared to a staggering 8 per cent of women working for lagging organisations.

Six actions a business can take now to promote workplace gender equality 

  1. Create and maintain an ‘every-day inclusive’ culture

Gender equality leaders demonstrate the benefits of an inclusive “everyday” culture, a culture where it is clear that non-inclusive behaviors are not acceptable and where anyone who experiences such behaviors feels able to speak out without concern. This requires engagement from the very top of the organisation, with leaders walking the talk.

  1. Enable work-life balance

Lack of work-life balance is the top reason women give for considering leaving their employer, and they cite “providing flexible working options that do not hinder my career progression” as one of the top three most important ways organisations can support the retention of women.

It is about a combination of innovative, flexible working for all employees – whether that is reduced presence, job-sharing, or term-time working – and an engrained lived culture that enables work-life balance for all.

This includes normalising flexible working for employees of all genders, addressing latent cultures of presenteeism, and leaders providing support to ensure those who work flexibly do not sacrifice career progression.

  1. Visible commitment of leaders is key

Meaningful and sustained change needs visible commitment from the organisation and senior leaders – indeed, committing to targets for gender representation at a senior level is frequently cited among the top three steps organisations can take to improve gender equality. After all, “what gets measured, gets done.”

  1. Provide fulfilling development opportunities that work for women

Women want meaningful opportunities to develop and build skills. They see these as beneficial to improving gender equality overall and as a critical element for their retention. Offer better learning development opportunities, interesting projects, and stretch assignments that work for women.

  1. Success at work is empowered by support for life outside work

Australian women account for approximately 47 per cent of the workforce. As workplaces morph into the ‘new normal’ many of the women surveyed emphasised the need for flexibility from employers. Nearly a quarter of women surveyed say better child care and caregiving support, short-term sabbaticals and better resources to support their mental health are the top three things their employer could do to support their development and retention.

  1. Rebuild better – with gender equality in mind

The results of the study clearly reveal the difficulties faced by women during the pandemic.  As work and workplaces are reimagined post-pandemic, it is incumbent on employers to rebuild the way we work with gender equality in mind. An inclusive and supportive work environment works for all and is hugely beneficial to productivity and business resilience.

References and further reading

Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Our 2020 setback’: Working mothers battle post-pandemic hangover

Samantha Sutherland, Australian women at work: Our 2020 setback