Covid the career killer: how women can fight back

Experts analyse the impact of Covid on women’s worklife and how they can rebound

Professor Gema Zamarro works at home with her daughter. The academic says Covid-19 saw society return to 'gender norms'. Courtesy Professor Gema Zamarro
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Dubai resident Louise Karim had a difficult time juggling her home and work life when the world retreated into their homes at the start of the crisis.

The managing director of Women@Work ME, a UAE recruitment agency that places professionals in positions across the Middle East, not only saw her business grind to a halt, but with her husband starting a new job, the bulk of the childcare fell to her.

“My children are five and six so you need to be there to help with the home-schooling,” she says. “I could not rely on my husband because he had just got a new job in the IT sector after being made redundant. Plus I had to scale my own team back so I was very busy doing pretty much everything.

“The mornings and evenings just merged into one – it was a real challenge.”

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - November 25, 2019: Louise Karim, Managing director of Women@Work. Panel discussion on women and the challenges they face at work. Monday, November 25th, 2017 at Rove Hotel, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Louise Karim, managing director of Dubai-based Women@Work, has struggled to juggle the double burden of work and childcare during the pandemic. Chris Whiteoak/The National

Ms Karim's situation was mirrored around the world; women struggling to keep on working while juggling an even greater burden than usual at home.

How women bounce back from the pandemic to ensure the impact on their careers is a blip, not an enduring setback, will involve some tough decisions for governments, companies and women themselves.

For many women, change will need to start at home.

Back to the 50s

Even before the pandemic, women were already doing more childcare than men but this was exacerbated and made clearer by lockdown.

“We kind of went back to gender norms,” says Professor Gema Zamarro, an economist at the University of Arkansas.

The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women has been described by some as knocking progress back a decade. But Robert Dingwall, a professor at Nottingham Trent University and one of the UK’s leading sociologists, describes this figure as “modest” and notes some commentators in the US who say women have been taken back to the 1950s.

“There’s evidence that women have been expected to pick up the domestic labour that has been created by working from home – supervising, online teaching, coming up with educational activities for kids, sorting out the meals that would normally have been eaten out of home,” he says.

“There’s been a big escalation which hasn’t really been compensated to any great extent by the greater presence of men in the house.”

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Professor Robert Dingwall says getting outside - in a Covid-safe way - would be helpful. Courtesy Professor Robert Dingwall

From an economic perspective it is sometimes rational because often the man is the higher earner in the partnership, Prof Dingwall says, referring to the “motherhood penalty”.

Chiara Marcati, partner at McKinsey & Company and author of the firm's Women at Work report, says women are one-and-a-half times more likely than men to have seen their workloads increase because of Covid.

"The majority of the workload is mostly about childcare, housecare and elderly care. If we try to quantify that, on average it's roughly about three hours of additional work per day," she says. "That's roughly 20 hours additional per week."

Women’s needs were an afterthought

Experts The National spoke to said the closure of schools globally had a major impact on women's roles in the home, as they tried to balance the stress of looking after children for longer in the day at a time when they often were also working.

It's a very old fashioned idea of the family that one parent can actually care for the child and school the child when they're at home and the other parent ... would carry on working.

And it seems little thought was given to how it would hit their careers more than men.

While some medical advisers to the UK government are women, most of the top ministers are not.

“It’s not like you have people with an acute sensitivity to the gender issue who are inside the process and providing a voice for them,” says Prof Dingwall.

"If you look at the people, politicians and scientists, who are making the key decisions in the UK, you won't find many women, and certainly very few without a degree of domestic support that most women don't have."

Professor Sophie Harman, an expert in international politics at Queen Mary University of London, says the impact on women was not inevitable.

“I don’t think it even occurred to the UK government to think about who is going to look after the children if they aren’t at school and what impacts on their life.

“I think it’s a very old fashioned idea of the family that one parent can actually care for the child and school the child when they’re at home and the other parent – in this case predominately the male parent – would carry on working. So there’s some really outdated notions of how families live.”

Out of work

While the situation improved for Ms Karim when her children returned to school full-time in the Autumn term, she says the same does not apply for women across the globe, with some forced to give up their job altogether because they could not balance their work and childcare needs.

“The job market has been brutal and women have been let go because they were juggling so many things,” she says. “A lot of women have decided to take a step back and decided I’m not going to look for a job right now, because I might end up with the kids off school again.”

With the number of coronavirus cases crossing the 35 million mark globally and the possibility of a second full lockdown, the outlook for women's careers is still very bleak.

Women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs globally, at 5.7 per cent versus 3.1 per cent respectively, according to McKinsey. While women make up 39 per cent of global employment, they also account for 54 per cent of overall job losses as the virus increases the domestic burden.

With women performing three-quarters of unpaid care work – 3.2 times more than men - even before Covid-19 began, it’s no surprise that burden rose sharply once countries went into lockdown.

“With the first lockdown when women were working from home with children out of school, they were feeling the increased load of domestic responsibilities, which we know pretty much fall on the shoulders of women, regardless of the country or the company,” says Allyson Zimmermann, the executive director of Catalyst Europe, a non-profit that advocates for positive change for women in the workplace.

“What we know is that women are experiencing heavy job losses in addition to childcare, so the crisis is not only threatening their economic gains globally as they fall behind but we are losing women out of the workplace.”

'Women are experiencing heavy job losses in addition to childcare', says Allyson Zimmermann of Catalyst.Courtesy Allyson Zimmermann
'Women are experiencing heavy job losses in addition to childcare', says Allyson Zimmermann of Catalyst.Courtesy Allyson Zimmermann

Ms Zimmermann points to a Catalyst study that found that the majority of women are primarily responsible for managing meals, supervising homework and even monitoring play time at home.

“However, women feel more guilty about attempting to meet work-life demands and many experience feelings of anxiety, so 41 per cent in the study say they must hide their caregiving struggles from their colleagues,” she says.

In fact, both men and women feel that being a parent is “a strike against them in the workplace” and fear taking advantage of parental benefits offered to them, she adds.

The McKinsey study from that 62 per cent of women employees feared that Covid-19 had negatively impacted their prospects for promotion, compared to 57 per cent of men.

Women are more than two times likely to fear judgement of their performance than their male colleagues because they are at home with the kids," says Ms Marcati. "In addition, women are more than 2.6 times more likely than men to feel discomfort about sharing their status as a parent, because again they feel the fear of being judged."

Research carried about by Prof Zamarro shows that women in the US have had a heavier domestic load than men even if they are still working.

Her research, published by the University of Southern California, found that 42 per cent of working mothers reduced their working hours at some point between March and July 2020, as compared to 30 per cent of working fathers.

“That worries me a lot because once women leave the labour force, it’s hard to go back,” she says. “If this a situation that stays for longer and women are taking this time off to be able to do the childcare, I wonder if they will be able to come back.”

Reducing the pay gap

All of this has come at a time where women were already grappling with the thorny issue of the gender pay gap.

In February, just before the virus took hold, the World Economic Forum said it would take 108 years for the gap between women and men’s pay to be closed across the globe. That figure is higher in the Middle East at 150 years, according to Taline Koranchelian, Middle East and Central Asia deputy director of the International Monetary Fund, who called for specific policies targeted at women to provide equal opportunities at the Global Women’s Forum in Dubai the same month.

Women are 1.3 times more likely than men to have considered stepping out of the workforce and slowing down their careers, particularly mothers, senior women and black women.

While a new law ensuring equal pay for men and women in the private sector came into force last month, across the rest of the world women typically earn less than men and take more time out from the workforce to have children, resulting in diminished pension pots for their retirement. Covid-19 will amplify women’s unpaid work burden, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, said in a recent report on the effects of the virus.

As coronavirus restrictions damage industries such as air travel, tourism, retail and hospitality ­– sectors that typically hire more women - they face a disproportionate risk of losing their jobs, the OECD found.

The debate around the gender pay gap saw companies falling over themselves to make their workplace more inclusive in the run-up to the pandemic, including efforts to increase female representation at mid and senior levels.

Now with women either facing the prospect of asking for more help in the event countries go into another full lockdown amid a second wave of the virus, or leaving work altogether – challenges around gender in the workplace have grown even more.

Leaving the workforce for a short-time can have a ripple effect on a woman’s career that follow a woman for the rest of her life, even depressing her earnings in retirement, Ms Zimmermann says.

"Women are 1.3 times more likely than men to have considered stepping out of the workforce and slowing down their careers, particularly mothers, senior women and black women," she says.

“There is a global issue in terms of who is sharing the load at home and disruptive times can really exaggerate the barriers and bias that many women encounter in the workplace. Covid has just amplified the gender, race, ethnic and socio-economic inequities.”

For those that have lost their jobs, the outlook is equally gloomy. Ms Karim says jobs listed on her recruitment site are now offering salaries 30 per cent less than pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s across the board,” she says. “Jobs that were on for about Dh60,000 ($16,000) before the crisis are now on for Dh20,000.”

If no action is taken to counter this “gender-regressive scenario”, global growth in gross domestic product could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked in each sector, according to McKinsey.

While some of this can be accounted for by the different industries women and men work in, the rest is down to societal barriers such as the belief that men have more right to a job because they need to bring in the household income.

Taking action now to advance gender equality now could add $13tn to global GDP in 2030, McKinsey found, while a middle path, where action is taken once the crisis has subsided, would reduce this figure by $5tn.

What companies can do

“What we’ve learnt from the first wave is that people are not suffering and dying equally, so it’s really important that companies and leaders handle this crisis with the utmost care and respect,” says Ms Karim. “They really need to lead with empathy.”

It’s key for employers to engage with their talent to find out why women aren’t advancing and how there are struggling in this crisis, says Ms Zimmermann.

“I remember speaking to one senior woman in Europe and she was saying ‘I really wish I could quit right now, I can’t do it anymore’. For her it was because of that double load [of work and childcare] – it was really impacting her and she said she knew several people at breaking point.

“We really need companies to get on the ball about how well women are experiencing the workplace right now.”

Ms Karim says it’s all about communication and being honest with your peers and management.

“If you don’t communicate, then people might not know that you have two kids being home-schooled,” she says. “It’s about saying ‘this is what I can do and this is when I need to work and what I need to support my children’.”

Ms Zimmerman says companies need to communicate with their staff but not overwhelm them to the point that there are 10 meetings a day.

“If companies are eliminating positions that are skewed to women disproportionately, they need to questions whether there is a way they can redeploy these women into other jobs to retain them,” she says.

Companies should really want to rebuild with women in mind, she says, exploring how they were treated during lockdown, and what could have been done differently.

“It’s really about looking broader and wider at the workplace and seeing how can we create a more inclusive workforce, how we can talk to the bias so that more women can get into the senior roles” she says.

What governments can do

Ultimately though, Ms Karim says change needs to come at a government level, so that employers are clear on the support they need to offer staff.

“It needs to be mandated,” she says.

Ms Zimmerman says “Governments really need to be curious about what they can do differently and be aware of where the inequality is happening and take action 

What women can do

There are steps women can take to spark improvements. Ms Karim says: “Women also need to set out their terms. That might seem difficult when jobs are scarce but if you don’t you are going to make yourself ill and you’re not going to achieve anything that you want to. It’s no one’s fault and we’ve just got to get on with it.”

With many women also feeling stagnant in their careers without the usual training sessions and opportunity for promotion, she also advises upskilling using online resources and training courses.

“Mentally that helps you progress and from an employer point it view it shows motivation and that you want to grow,” she says.

Ms Marcati offers three tips on how she balances a career and childcare during Covid. The first she says is to maintain boundaries about what you are prepared to do, such as not accepting phone calls or joining meeting at certain times of the day.

"Number two, I highlight every time I feel somebody is judging my performance because maybe my kid is screaming on the background," she says. "And number three, I will share with my colleagues and the people around me my when I feel overwhelmed or frustrated. We are all human beings and we have to find a way to make it work in this complex world."

It's good to talk

Ms Karim agrees that talking is key.

“I would communicate with your employer and share that this was really difficult and say we need to find a new way to approach it. In times of crisis, productivity looks different, meetings look different and how we get things done looks different," she says.

“It's really about companies looking at how we can do this better. [They need to think] we want to retain this female talent and we want to make sure that we are meeting their needs.

But change needs to start at a personal level.

“Women need to have this discussion in the home [about who does what],” says Ms Zimmerman.

“Absolutely negotiate at home.”