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Pandemic triggers a workplace ‘shecession’

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 05 Mar 2021

8 March 2021: COVID-19 and its economic fallout are having a devastating and regressive effect on gender equality in the workplace, which in turn will stunt post-pandemic economic recovery, according to two major reports.

PwC’s Women in Work Index has pointed to a “shecession”, in which progress for women in work will be back to 2017 levels by the end of 2021 due to the global pandemic.

The greater proportion of women leaving the workforce due to the COVID crisis will affect the pipeline of female talent and set back the increased representation of women at board level. According to the study, this will not only reverse progress towards gender equality but also stunt economic growth.

Meanwhile, McKinsey’s COVID-19 and gender equality study found that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s. Women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses. The main reason cited by the analyst firm for this greater effect on women is that the virus is significantly increasing the burden of unpaid care, which is disproportionately carried by women.

A recent report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on women makes clear that the coronavirus policy response has overlooked women, and potentially exacerbated the unequal position of women in the workforce and society that was evident prior to the pandemic. 

“Equality is not a nice-to-have which can be shelved in times of crisis,” warns a letter to the Prime Minister from a coalition of organisations including the TUC, The Young Women’s Trust and Maternity Action led by the Fawcett Society. The Fawcett Society, a charity that campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, says there is a danger that the gender pay gap would widen as a result. It also described the UK as being at a "coronavirus crossroads" that could impact the progress of workplace equality for years.

Deirdre Golden, a Consultant at diversity and inclusion consultancy Frost, said the rush to drive business may mean employers taking their eye off the ball and focusing on results to the detriment of inclusion and diversity. “Employers need to prioritise closing the gender pay gap, go back to the basics and look again at gender representation in the organisation, particularly as more women’s jobs are being lost”.

Sue Vinnicombe CBE, Professor of Women and Leadership at Cranfield School of Management, warns that when it comes to gender diversity, tokenism is rife and a sense of “job done” prevails among many organisations. “People don’t really care anymore, and the focus seems to have shifted to geographic inequalities buoyed by the levelling up agenda and educational equalities. Yes, we have the numbers on boards, but women still don’t have the influential roles.” 

Kathryn Bishop, an Associate Fellow at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford and the author of Make Your Own Map: Career Success Strategy for Women, warned of a possible longer-term impact of the pandemic on diversity and inclusion, that would require attentive leadership, constructive dialogue and investment. 

“What will happen to diversity and inclusion if most of the male employees chose to spend most of the week working in the office, while most of the women choose to spend most of the week working remotely? The hybrid working week appears to be an attractive new option with real advantages for many, but it will also bring some new problems. Organisations will of course have to focus on their response to external market changes, but the internal challenge of supporting employees and re-designing working patterns is just as important.”

The pandemic had forced many women to rethink their careers and plan to make some significant changes in where they work and what they do, Bishop added. “Employers may find that the pipeline of talented senior women looks very different now and that these women don’t plan to return to normality as it was in 2019.”

To mark International Women’s Day, ICAEW’s Diversity & Inclusion Community Manager Marcia Dyce talks to three inspirational female professionals, who share their personal journeys and top tips for success.