Originally published at ey.com. Ruchi Bhowmik is EY’s Global Public Policy Vice-Chair. EY is a DiversityInc Hall of Fame company.
This year, it feels like International Women’s Day marks both a significant step forward – and a significant step backward – when it comes to gender equality. On the one hand, we have a number of high-profile women leading the global response to this crisis – which sends out a powerful message about the role of women in both politics and work. But, on the other hand, we’re seeing the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s lives and career prospects, all around the world.
In the US alone, 2.5 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic struck – compared with 1.8 million men. In many cases, they have either been forced out of the labor market because of their caregiving obligations; in others, they have been made redundant by struggling employers. In total, 50 million Americans today are unpaid caregivers – a staggering amount.
Kamala Harris herself, recently sworn in as the first-ever female vice president of the United States, has described this mass exodus of female workers as a “national emergency” and warned that, in just one year, “the pandemic has put decades of the progress we have collectively made for women workers at risk.” She also argued that the US economy would not fully recover from the shock of the virus unless women were able to “participate fully.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the World Economic Forum was predicting that, at current rates of progress, it would take 257 years to close the economic gender gap between men and women. Subsequently, a report by the United Nations (pdf) in the early days of the pandemic found that the impacts of the virus, including the economic impacts, were exacerbated for women and girls, who are more likely to earn and save less than their male counterparts, hold insecure jobs or live close to poverty.
Even the mass shift to remote working around the world, and the associated flexibility it has brought, has not been fully accessible to women given that they are more highly represented in industries such as nursing and retail and hospitality services, which cannot be performed remotely.
We can use this moment to push forward on family-focused policies that will help to drive gender equality further, faster.
— Ruchi Bhowmik (EY Global Public Policy Vice-Chair)
Positive action on gender equality
There is no doubt that the past year has been a major economic setback for millions of women. Unless many of these women return to the workplace, the global economy will miss out. We can use this moment to push forward on family-focused policies that will help to drive gender equality further, faster. Here are three areas of opportunity to help ensure our post-COVID-19 recovery builds on our lessons learned:
1. Expand access to affordable, high-quality childcare
In the Nordic countries, where governments significantly subsidize the costs of childcare, nearly three-quarters of women are active in the labor force. In comparison, less than half (46.9%) of all women globally participated in the labor force during 2019, according to the World Bank. Recently, US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell queried whether the US’ complacency on the issue of access to childcare was the reason that the US “used to lead the world in female labor force participation a quarter-century ago,” but no longer does. Expanding access to affordable, quality childcare should be the minimum response to this crisis if we are to recover the lost progress we’ve made on gender parity.
2. Create a workplace and an economy that acknowledges the demands of caregiving
The realities of caregivers must inform our workplace and legislative policies. An EY and Peterson Institute of International Economics study found that the countries with the highest percentages of women in leadership offered fathers 11 times more paternity leave days than the countries at the bottom. EY then implemented a policy with equal maternity and paternity leave – which resulted in lower turnover rates for women. These policies recognize that employees have families – and whether taking care of newborns, tending to elderly parents or overseeing kids’ virtual schooling – helping your people manage these challenges will result in lower turnover and ultimately greater productivity. But not all workplaces can provide such flexibility, and too often those roles at the lower end of the economic spectrum provide none. Changing these policies and incentivizing better ones is key to an inclusive recovery.
3. Provide return-to-work policies that create a glide path to return for people who have been out of the labor force for a while
Talented people can lose confidence when they’ve been out of the workplace. To drive the economic recovery, we need to find ways to facilitate the return of caregivers who’ve had to leave the labor market during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other individuals who have stepped off the career ladder in recent years and may want to come back. For example, the EY organization runs programs to support career returners, providing a bridge for professionals to re-enter the workplace after an extended break. We can’t let the pandemic permanently derail the economic participation of women in these categories.
It is often said, “don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” This pandemic has challenged all of us – but has provided tremendous lessons: that scientists can break records to develop ground-breaking vaccines; that remote working can actually improve productivity in some fields; and that the health of our communities is dependent on resilient families, which are buttressed by caregiving and caregivers.
COVID-19 has taught me that I am lucky – I am lucky that my kids are old enough to manage their own online schooling; lucky that my mother is well enough to provide care for my father as he battles his own health issues; lucky that my line of work lends itself to the virtual reality we’re all dealing with.
On this International Women’s Day, I am grateful for all of the women who are supporting us through this challenging time – whether it be global leaders like Vice President Kamala Harris, the women who stepped out of the workforce to care for their families during the pandemic or women like my mother who are bearing the burden of caregiving so that people like me can remain in the workforce. All these women are building a better working world. As we push past the pandemic, we must remember these women’s sacrifices and not waste this crisis; providing better care for caregivers will benefit all of us.