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How the Pandemic has Impacted Women in the Workforce



The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly been profound and far-reaching. With lockdowns imposed across the world and people subsequently being instructed to stay and work from home, the economy has taken a huge hit.

Dishearteningly, the pandemic has had an especially adverse effect on women.

Globally, women make up 39% of employment, yet they have accounted for 54% of overall job losses. Furthermore, the pandemic has exacerbated existing gender and income inequalities. Despite small upward trends, women remain vastly underrepresented in the most senior positions, with this particularly being the case for women of colour.

As such, whilst women as a broad category have been impacted, working mothers, women in senior positions, and women of colour have experienced the largest challenges.

According to analysis conducted for PwC’s annual Women in Work Index, progress for women in work could regress to 2017 levels by the end of 2021 due to the pandemic. COVID-19 has thus issued a major setback for the state of female workers, having had a near-immediate effect on women’s employment. PWC have termed this phenomenon a ‘shecession’.

One overriding reason for this unfortunate trend is that women disproportionately carry out more unpaid care than their male counterparts. Since the pandemic has increased the burden of care on families, many women have had to drop out of the labour force in order to accommodate growing responsibilities for unpaid work at home, such as home-schooling children.

Strikingly, women are responsible for 75 percent of the world’s total unpaid-care work. In regions such as South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, as much as 80 to 90 percent of unpaid work is carried out by women. The pandemic has substantially increased women’s family responsibilities (by an estimated 30 percent in India and by 1.5 to 2.0 hours in the United States).

This is a robust explanation for females dropping out of the workforce at a much higher rate than men. In reality, such career breaks have long-term impacts on women’s career prospects, with them often returning to lower paid and lower skilled positions.

The longer that this burden on women lasts, the more women there will be exiting the labour permanently. This would not only reverse the progress towards gender equality that has hitherto been made but would also reduce productivity and stunt economic growth.  

According to a McKinsey report, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s jobs, and women are markedly more represented in sectors negatively affected by COVID-19. McKinsey reveals that 4.5 percent of women’s global employment is at risk, compared with 3.8 percent of men’s, due to the differences in industries that men and women participate in.

Women constitute the majority of the workforce in three of the four sectors most heavily affected by the pandemic, such as hospitality and retail. The gendered nature of work across industries explains the difference between job-loss rates for men and women.

In the U.K women hold 79 percent of jobs in the health and social work sector and 70 percent of jobs in education, and constitute a predominant portion of the retail workforce, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. The nature of these jobs often demands that they be completed in person, and their pursuance thus forces the employee to face a greater risk of exposure to the virus.

Those in developing nations are at even higher risk, for they lack the resources and capacity to work remotely, meaning they are at a decisive risk of contracting the virus while working. In the U.K., the full impact of job losses from COVID-19 is yet to be realised, but furlough data shows that women are at greater risk of losing their jobs.

Between July and October 2020, a total of 15.3 million jobs were furloughed in the U.K. 52 percent of these were women’s jobs, despite women only making up 48% of the workforce.

A Female Feature

It has been established that greater gender equality has a positive effect on economic growth. Estimates show that improved gender equity would add $13 trillion to the global GDP.

Therefore, employers must consciously support women and implement measures to prevent their departure from the workforce, for example by providing interventions to address unpaid work such as childcare.

In order to effectively tackle this issue, unpaid care must be better identified, reduced, rebalanced between men and women. Further interventions must also be made to mitigate attitudinal gender biases and change entrenched attitudes about women’s role in society. Workplace norms surrounding flexibility and mental health must also be reconsidered.

According to the 2020 Women in the Workplace study, women have been feeling under greater pressure than men, despite many companies’ efforts to support employees. In light of this, employers must thus work hard to promote flexibility and mental well-being to mitigate female burnout.

While the extent of the economic fallout remains unknown, the pandemic has undoubtedly facilitated a huge economic downturn. This has adversely impacted women in the workforce worldwide, heightening the existing inequalities that women are confronted with. Throughout the pandemic, women have sustained deeper job losses and been forced to contend with increased responsibilities for unpaid work.

Ultimately, the gendered effects of the COVID-19 crisis have highlighted the uneven progress toward gender equality. To limit the extent of this ‘shecession’, extensive efforts must be made to address the regressive effects of the pandemic on women in the workforce.

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