The Post-Pandemic Women’s Equality Crisis

Women’s Equality Day is all about raising awareness and opening a dialogue around the lack of gender equality we face around the globe, but for the purposes of this blog we’re going to focus on corporate America.  

It’s no secret that fostering gender equality in the workplace has tangible benefits, like increased profits, boosted morale, improved innovation, and more interest among potential talent and investors. In fact, according to McKinsey, the most gender-diverse companies are 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability. Having more diverse voices at the table is clearly a win-win, and companies who don’t come to that conclusion will soon be left behind. 

So why is it taking so long to see positive change? Ongoing research from McKinsey demonstrates that there has been little to no progress in improving female representation in the workplace over the past four years. Women are still dramatically underrepresented at every level, and – you guessed it – the problem is worse for women of color (see Figure 1 below). 

What’s more, Covid-19 impacted women in the workforce significantly more than their male counterparts (see Figure 2 below). 

400,000 more women than men have exited the workforce since the pandemic began. While most males are now reentering, many females are not. 1 in 4 women are considering leaving the workplace entirely, meaning that corporate America could lose as many as 2 million women. This is a crisis. 

If the current situation is ignored, it could reverse decades of painstaking progress towards gender equality. Additional research conducted by McKinsey and Oxford Economics estimates that employment for women may not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024—two full years after recovery for men. McKinsey has also estimated that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector (though the impact could be greater). The loss of women in the workforce is not only detrimental to gender equality efforts, but also to the overall economy.  

The responsibility to bring women back into the workforce falls on each individual organization, and each individual leader. This responsibility goes far beyond crisis control – beyond just returning to pre-pandemic levels. Women deserve equality in the workplace, and organizations deserve the benefits that will bring. Here are a few ways organizations and leaders can maximize gender equality in the workplace, making it easier for women to return to work. 

Offer Flexibility

While gender equality is a pre-existing issue, it worsens significantly after women have children. One of the main reasons why women have disproportionately been forced out of employment is due to an increased demand for their presence as caretakers. Offering increased flexibility is the easiest way to bring women back to work. Plus, flexibility is the future of work, so the benefits go far beyond mothers who work. (Visit our blog on Flexibility for more info).  

Working moms should have the freedom to customize their schedules, work remote part of the time, and take leave when necessary. Compared to other countries, the U.S. ranks terribly when it comes to parental leave (see Figure 3 below). 

 U.S. states that have implemented paid-leave policies found a 20% reduction in the number of female employees leaving their jobs in the first year after giving birth—and up to a 50% reduction after five years. If more organizations implement similar policies, working mothers will be afforded a more equal opportunity to work.  

By prioritizing work-life balance, your organization can offer what its people need. Not only will this lower turnover rates (which saves a ton of money), but it will also attract a bigger talent pool. 

Mitigate Bias 

Studies have found that even the slightest gender bias can have a massive impact. For example, research shows that a 1% gender bias effect at a Fortune 500 company that hires 8,000 people a year can lead to productivity losses of about $2.8 million a year. Is your company doing enough to mitigate bias, or is it paying the price?  

Eliminating bias begins with recruiting, but of course carries into all other talent processes. To reduce the risk of bias in the hiring process, assess job candidates based on their skills, and use structured interviews using a standard set of questions for all applicants. Studies also show that it can be quite beneficial to lengthen informal shortlists. Research conducted by Harvard Business Review found that the extended shortlist contained 44% more female candidates than the initial shortlist (a 1:6 women-to-men ratio in the initial list and a 1:4 women-to-men ratio in the extended list). By opening up your talent pool, you make room for more equal opportunity. 

To mitigate bias within your organization, it helps to bring in experts to guide the process. An outside perspective, not only brings the specialized expertise and but also brings an objective lens. As an example, we conduct bias-busting workshops and implement tailor-made change plans for our clients so that they can effectively minimize conscious and unconscious bias on their teams. If you feel your organization could use some professional guidance, schedule a consultation now

Address the Gender Pay Gap 

The gender pay gap has seen little improvement over the past 15 years. According to Pew Research, in 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned. At that rate, it would take an extra 42 days of work for women to earn what men did in 2020. Over the course of a 40 year career, this would amount to a $407,760 discrepancy. That number is higher for minority women.  

Also according to Pew Research, 42% of working women said they had experienced gender discrimination at work, compared with 22% of men. While that discrimination can take many forms, it often manifests as unequal pay.   

Needless to say, organizations need to do more to reduce the pay gap.  There are several ways to do this. Create transparency in salary and benefits so that employees can be better informed. With Gen Z entering the workforce, they will continue to put pressure on this cultural element. If you haven’t already, make sure hiring managers and recruiters don’t ask for salary history during the interview process.  It’s not only illegal in some states, it also perpetuates lower salaries for women and minorities. And, eliminate salary negotiations, since that also adds to the discrepancies.  Finally, have an external party conduct regular compensation equity reviews by gender.  If you identify discrepancies, don’t wait to fix it.  Companies can lead in this space – we don’t have to wait for legislation to tell us the right thing to do. 

Shaara Roman is founder and CEO of The Silverene Group, a culture consultancy that helps companies align their people programs with business goals.