Covid-19 has increased gender bias faced by women at work, new study finds

The pandemic has had a devastating economic effect on women and it will now take more than 267 years to close the gender gap

Dr Reem Osman, chief executive of Saudi German Hospital Dubai. Courtesy Saudi German Hospital.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated biases that women have faced in the workplace for years, further underscoring the need for flexible work options and the recruitment of more female talent, new research showed.

Among the pandemic-intensified gender biases women face are higher performance standards and lower chances of them being hired or promoted to senior management positions, according to a joint report by global leadership organisation YPO, the Financial Times and UN Women.

"Unfortunately, the pandemic has made the situation worse, with many challenges for women, especially in lockdowns and home schooling ... so women had to make choices: take unpaid leave or work from home and focus on family matters," Dr Reem Osman, a member of YPO and chief executive of Saudi-German Hospital Dubai, told The National.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate and devastating economic toll on women and it will now take a whopping 267.6 years to close the gender gap in economic participation and opportunity, according to estimates by the World Economic Forum.

The survey, titled A global imperative: gender equality in the C-suite, polled more than 2,000 YPO-member chief executives aged 24 to 92 from 106 countries, 23 per cent of whom were women.

The YPO members run businesses with an annual revenue ranging from $10 million to more than $1 billion in more than 30 industries, including manufacturing, health care, technology, retail and property.

The biggest challenge women face in achieving gender parity is the burden of unpaid work such as childcare and household responsibilities due to traditional gender roles, followed by unconscious bias, according to female respondents.

About half of the female respondents said “cultural expectations related to gender” were an obstacle in the path to becoming chief executives, compared with fewer than 2 per cent of male respondents.

More than seven in 10 (73 per cent) of female respondents said they have taken leave or sacrificed career advancement because of family needs, compared with 42 per cent of male respondents, the report said.

However, 60 per cent of female chief executives said they have gone on maternity leave while only 13 per cent of male chief executives have taken paternity leave.

Business leaders can improve gender equality in the workplace by introducing training on identifying bias, providing mentorship programmes to guide women into leadership roles, supporting equal pay, prioritising the hiring of women and supporting flexible work arrangements, the survey said.

They must also communicate gender policy to the organisation and lead by example.

Women-led businesses reported more diversity on their boards, in senior management and across their organisations, the report said.

Female chief executives reported that 43 per cent of their senior management is female, compared with 26 per cent at male-run businesses, the report showed. At an organisational level, 48 per cent of the workforce is female at women-led companies. In contrast, 37 per cent of the workforce is female at male-run companies.

“This suggests that female board members are champions for gender diversity and serve as role models within their organisations,” the report said.

The gender ratio at Saudi-German Hospital Dubai is split at 47 per cent female and 53 per cent male, with an almost 50:50 split at senior management level, Dr Osman said.

She said gender diversity can be fast-tracked by hiring more women to lead companies.

“Women chief executives by default are more focused on women empowerment,” said Dr Osman.

Female leaders have the talent and natural intuition it takes to run successful companies, she said.

“We have diamonds; we just want to make them shine and they will shine.”

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Unfortunately, the pandemic has made the situation worse with many challenges for women especially in lockdowns and home schooling

Regions where organisations have made the most progress in gender distribution include Latin America (73 per cent), the Mena region (71 per cent) and South Asia (68 per cent), the report showed.

Half of the Mena region's chief executives are more likely to say the board of directors of their organisations have significantly or somewhat increased in gender diversity in the past five years, compared with the world average of 38 per cent, the survey found.

Meanwhile, 58 per cent of Mena chief executives are more likely to support female leadership and mentoring programmes that are not yet present in their organisations, compared with 40 per cent of respondents globally.

Sixty-six per cent of the Mena respondents also said they were likely to offer flexible working arrangements voluntarily. This compares with 76 per cent of the survey's respondents worldwide.

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