Reframing the workplace to work better for women.
The pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to women’s progress in the global workplace. According to International Labor Organization (ILO) data, 64 million female jobs have been lost, equivalent to $800 billion in income. In the United States, vice president Kamala Harris has even called the issue a “national emergency.” The “shecession” we signaled in this year’s “Future 100” report is now in full flow.
Recent projections from McKinsey and Oxford Economics based on US data suggest that female jobs will take longer to recover, setting back tentative progress towards workplace equality. The pandemic is exacerbating well-documented gender-specific challenges in the workplace: the gender pay gap, gender bias, higher rates of burnout for women, the unpaid care burden.
It’s clear: workplaces aren’t working for women. This is not just bad news for women—it has serious economic repercussions too. Women are a potent lever of economic growth. In order to win back and retain them, companies need to overhaul their approach and tailor their policies to women’s needs in three key areas.
Working mothers have historically endured a raft of disadvantages in the workplace. Sociologists even coined the term “motherhood penalty” to describe the asymmetries in pay, benefits and perceived competence experienced by mothers in comparison to childless women.
The pandemic turned the screw, piling on impossible pressure for many families obliged to juggle work and caring duties. Thanks to the gender pay gap, women are stepping back in droves: a global Financial Timessurvey published in March 2021 found that approximately 40% are considering scaling back their work to cope, compared to just 30% of men.
Supporting families with caregiving could tackle a key barrier to work for women. The Care Economy Business Council, a new coalition, is calling on businesses to step up and create better caregiving options. Tina Tchen, CEO of the Time’s Up advocacy group, which created the coalition, told NPR radio that “the pandemic has really, really just exposed to everyone how critical the need is to have caregiving in this country.” Two hundred businesses, including Google, McDonald’s, Spotify and Uber, have already signed up to the council, which plans to work with members to innovate equitable solutions to the caregiving crisis.
Another powerful solution is more flexible working. A survey by Catalyst of more than 7,400 employees worldwide reported that women with childcare responsibilities are 32% less likely to report that they intend to leave their job if they can work remotely. Earlier this year, Spotify introduced its Work From Anywhere model, which allows employees to choose whether they prefer to work in the office, remotely, or in a coworking space. Other companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft, have also made working from home a permanent option.
For those women trying to regain a foothold on the career ladder, another trend sees parenting itself acknowledged as relevant business skill. The US network for career-driven mothers, HeyMama, has launched a campaign called Motherhood on the Resume, which aims to combat the stigma that working mothers experience in the workplace. The campaign invites women to add “mother” to their resumes and calls on companies to pledge their support. In a similar vein, LinkedIn recently introduced a new feature that allows members to use stay-at-home mom (or dad, or parent) as their job title.
As well as encouraging mothers back into the workplace, businesses are also introducing empathetic policies that acknowledge the experience of motherhood. The British army won a 2021 Best for Mothers award from work-life balance charity Working Families in recognition of its progressive policies, including a breastfeeding network offering peer support and advice. Others are responding to the trauma that families and individuals sometimes experience. In April, UK broadcaster Channel 4 introduced a ground-breaking pregnancy-loss policy that offers two weeks paid leave plus medical support and counseling resources to employees affected by miscarriage, abortion or stillbirth. The digital bank Monzo followed suit with a similar policy in May. In New Zealand, three days of paid leave is now enshrined in law after being unanimously passed by parliament in March.
From menstrual taboos to menopause
Throughout their working lives, women wrestle with everyday health issues that can affect them at work, yet have been woefully misunderstood, dismissed or ignored by employers.
The Indian food delivery firm Zomato hit headlines last year when it introduced 10 days of paid period leave per year for anyone in the company who menstruates. A handful of countries have also legislated menstrual leave, including Indonesia, Taiwan and Zambia.
Women over 50 are one of the fastest-growing groups in the workplace in many countries, yet ironically, menopause can be another trigger for women to drop out of the workforce. The toll of menopause, which can include symptoms such as hot flashes, migraines and depression, undermines women’s confidence and disrupts their prospects at a time where their male peers are progressing to the most senior roles—a frustration that leaves many women quitting their jobs. As Jen Gunter, author of The Menopause Manifesto, explained to the Washington Post, “If you are really struggling with symptoms while some dude is being told he’s brilliant, and when you say the same thing it’s too harsh, you might just say ‘screw it’ and walk out the door.”
The United Kingdom is pioneering the menopause-friendly workplace. Utilities firm Severn Trent has been un-tabooing menopause since 2017, when it introduced awareness training, following up with practical support such as flexible hours, access to washrooms and fans. Channel 4 has also been a trailblazer, launching an innovative policy in 2019 that includes the provision of cool spaces and desk fans as well as paid leave for women feeling symptoms.
Now the issue is gaining broader traction. In March, Vodafone launched its global commitment on menopause that will offer support, assistance, training and awareness. Vodafone’s own research in five countries has found that almost two thirds of women who experienced symptoms had suffered an impact on their work, and a third had hidden their symptoms. Diageo has also announced support for women and their line managers, issuing new menopause guidelines this year.
Closing the mental wellness gap
The gender gap has another dimension beyond pay: mental wellbeing. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety; they also experience health conditions that are uniquely female, such as post-partum depression and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. This skew was further exacerbated by the pandemic, which took a toll on mental wellbeing. A study on women’s progress by McKinsey and LeanIn.org found three groups under particular pressure: mothers, senior women and Black women.
Despite this prevalence, some businesses remain ill-prepared to deal with problems when they arise, even for woman at the top of their game. The world’s highest-paid female tennis player, Naomi Osaka, recently opted to withdraw from the French Open after her request to skip media duties to protect her own fragile mental health met with a fine and a threat of expulsion, rather than compassion. In a piece she wrote for Time magazine, she called for more “privacy” and “empathy” from the press, noting that, in most lines of work, “you wouldn’t have to divulge your most personal symptoms to your employer; there would likely be HR measures protecting at least some level of privacy.” Osaka is perhaps symbolic of a new generation of women who are willing to enforce their own boundaries and put self-care ahead of self-sacrifice. Employers take note.
There are signs that companies are trying to center employee mental wellbeing. In June this year, dating site Bumble gave its entire staff a week’s paid holiday to tackle stress and burnout. Mozilla followed suit in early July with a Wellness Week.
PepsiCo and Verizon are continuing pandemic offerings to help ease burnout, such as increased paid time off and childcare or elder-care benefits, as well as embracing flexible work schedules and remote work. Fidelity is granting full-time and part-time employees five additional “relief days” for unexpected events, as well as access to elder-care and childcare coordinators who can help find suitable caregivers or tutors, in hopes of helping parents and carers achieve a better work-life balance.
In the United Kingdom, business builder Zinc launched a new six-month program in May that will see 55 entrepreneurs build tech startups to help tackle issues surrounding female mental health. Zinc aims to use innovations in technology to build companies that can be scaled globally, to tackle problems faced across the world.
Investing in women’s needs, at any age, means investing in economies and delivers benefits to everyone. Businesses that build caring, compassionate environments that support women’s needs and nurture their growth will reap the rewards.
Main image of Naomi Osaka, courtesy of Unsplash.