Women pay the price of pandemic’s HR fallout

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but on International Women’s Day 2021 it is time to reflect on the burdens on women working through it.

Last week ThinkBusiness.ie wrote about how the pandemic has actually reversed many of the important gains made over the past decade for women in the workforce. The cost of this is a ‘shecession’ with more women than men bearing the brunt of unemployment but also leaving the workforce at a faster rate than men.

The pandemic has been hard on everyone and according to a study by Laya Healthcare, Irish workers working from home have put in 300m overtime hours since the start of the pandemic. According to the study, two in five (43pc) of workers are experiencing frequent stress.

“Covid-19 has likely had a more damaging impact on women’s careers than men’s”

The findings of a study into 1,000 Irish employees and 180 HR leaders shows that two thirds (65pc) of those working from home feel pressure to stay connected after normal hours with an average of 22 hours put in of overtime per month by employees over the last year, worth €7bn.

Deteriorating morale

“We are seeing worrying signs of deteriorating morale among employees, due in part to less social interaction with colleagues, the struggle to self-motivate, and having to be ‘always-on’,” said Sinéad Proos, head of Health and Wellbeing at Laya Healthcare Ireland.

“Our latest barometer shows that employee motivation and maintaining organisational culture are becoming more notable issues compared to six months ago, with a greater number of employees now citing the loss of workplace bonding as their top challenge of working from home.” 

But on this International Women’s Day 2021, it is worth noting in particular how the challenges of the pandemic have affected women workers. The key word here is childcare.

According to the PwC study before Covid-19 hit, women on average spent six more hours than men on unpaid childcare every week (according to research by UN Women). During Covid-19, women have taken on an even greater share and now spend 7.7 more hours per week on unpaid childcare than men – this ‘second shift’ equates to 31.5 hours per week; almost as much an extra full-time job.

On top of stress, the material impact has been a loss in the financial gains made by women in the past decade – to close the gender pay gap that was widened during Covid-19 it would cost $4.8bn in Ireland alone, according to the PwC study.

“While some women may leave the workforce temporarily due to Covid-19 with the intention of returning post-pandemic, research shows that career breaks have long-term impacts on women’s labour market prospects,” said Ger McDonagh, partner, People & Organisation at PwC Ireland.

“For employers, the impact of attrition is likely to exacerbate skills shortages, threatening business growth, and compound challenges in meeting diversity and inclusion targets. Organisations can prevent this avoidable loss by engaging all of their people, particularly women, to understand the support they need to stay in work.

“Practical steps include introducing or updating flexible working arrangements, strengthening the inclusivity of their organisational culture, and considering the D&I impacts of key decisions such as restructuring. Organisations that take a longer-term view will ensure that they have access to the best talent for a post-Covid world.”

Women’s jobs more vulnerable than men’s

Research by LinkedIn echoes that of PwC, indicating that on top of the extra workload at home, women’s jobs jobs are more vulnerable and prone to economic shocks and business disruption than men’s.

“Women’s jobs are more prone to disruption than men’s since the outbreak of the pandemic”

LinkedIn data showing the share of hires by gender from January 2019 to January 2021 finds the share of women being hired fell sharply in March and April 2020, before recovering to pre-pandemic levels. In Ireland., women were approximately 45pc of all hires in January 2021, compared to 43pc in April 2020. In the U.S., women accounted for 49.3pc of hires in January 2021, versus 44.4pc in April 2020. 

While the hiring outlook for women is better now than in Spring 2020, analysis shows there is an urgent need to make up the lost ground caused by the pandemic. The current improvement in the rate at which women are being hired doesn’t offset the number of women that have been disproportionately affected by job losses, with many leaving the labour market altogether.

In addition to a sharp drop in women’s hiring during the initial Covid-19 wave, the pace of women’s hiring slowed slightly in subsequent Covid-19 waves. And in most markets around the world, women are still hired at a lower rate than men.

“LinkedIn’s data from around the world tells a consistent story: women’s hiring has proven to be more vulnerable than men’s and Covid-19 has likely had a more damaging impact on women’s careers than men’s,” said Karin Kimbrough, chief economist at LinkedIn.

“While the evidence shows that countries around the world have lost ground on gender equality in the workplace, it also points to steps we can all take to fix that, starting right now. Employers can help by actively seeking female talent, removing any bias from job descriptions, and by offering more flexibility to allow for a better work-life balance. Governments also need to focus on policies that provide support for caregivers, including prioritizing full-time school openings. These changes are key to how we recover the damage caused by the pandemic and build equal workforces and societies.”

Women’s career prospects have also been hurt by the fact that women are more likely to work in roles that require in-person service or have less opportunity for remote-ready work, according to LinkedIn data. These factors, which existed prior to the pandemic, and were amplified by the magnitude and speed of the downturn in economic activity.

“Analysis of our data – including our 2m members in Ireland – has shown that women’s jobs are more prone to disruption than men’s since the outbreak of the pandemic, with women disproportionately experiencing a sharp decline in hiring in Ireland during the initial phase of Covid-19,” said Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn in Ireland.

“While the pandemic may have put the spotlight on inequality in the workplace, it has also shown that it has been possible to do things differently. To make up lost ground, companies should look to offer the same level of flexibility to their teams post pandemic as they did during it, to help ensure women are not left juggling household responsibilities and their careers.”

Time for action

Echoing Kimbrough’s point about government policy, Chambers Ireland has called on the Government of Ireland to ease the intensified “Covid burden” on women by introducing policies focused on flexible work, parenting equality and the provision of affordable childcare.

“A workplace that places gender equality at the heart of its operations is a workplace which is flexible and supportive of working families”

Chambers said the aim must be at the centre of the National Economic Plan to ensure women are not left behind during the economic recovery. The call by Chambers Ireland follows the publication of research which showed that over half (57pc) of female entrepreneurs in Ireland found caring and home duties more difficult because of Covid-19 – a figure that is 11 percentage points higher than their European counterparts. A total of 52pc said the pandemic had a “strong to severe” impact on their work-life balance.

“Throughout the last year, research has indicated that the impact of the pandemic has been felt more strongly by women,” said Ian Talbot, CEO of Chambers Ireland.

“This includes part-time workers who have lost their jobs to frontline workers in health and essential services. Increasing amounts of data show that the work-life balance of women in the workplace has suffered a significant decline.

“Last week, in association with our Brussels-based sister organisation, Eurochambres, we published data which illustrated how Covid-19 confinement measures have heightened several pre-existing obstacles for female entrepreneurs.

“Looking at Irish data specifically, 57pc of female entrepreneurs noted that remote working made it more difficult to carry our caring and home duties. This figure is more than 10pc higher than their European counterparts. The research is evidence of what we have been hearing from many of our members over the past year – which is that women in the workplace have been more likely to carry the weight of caring responsibilities and home duties during restrictions.

“On International Women’s Day, our message to Government and policymakers is that we must ensure the long-term impact of the pandemic does not result in a permanently wider gender pay gap. Flexible working, parenting equality and investment in affordable childcare must be at the centre of the National Economic Plan and the Government’s response to the recovery.

“Our message to our own members and employers is that we must work even harder to ensure family-friendly work policies are a bigger part of the workplace. While schools and childcare have started to re-open, flexibility and support for working families will remain a necessity. A workplace that places gender equality at the heart of its operations is a workplace which is flexible and supportive of working families. On International Women’s Day, we must ensure that this message is heard loud and clear.”

Laya Healthcare infographic on impact of pandemic stress on Irish workforce.
  • Laya Health’s study, which measures the wellbeing of over 1,000 Irish employees and 180 HR leaders during the pandemic, is the second barometer issued by Laya Healthcare during Covid-19 and will be unveiled at a free virtual event for HR leaders on 11 March 2021. Register at layahealthcare.ie/bravenewera/resilience

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 8 March, 2021