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How has Covid impacted women in the workplace?

18 Jan 2021 By Seema Farazi, Sally Jones and Katherine Savage

With female workers likely to be hit harder than in previous downturns, more needs to be done to ensure their rights and opportunities are protected, say Seema Farazi, Sally Jones and Katherine Savage

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been profound, with economies around the world finding themselves plunged into a state of extreme distress. But it is also having an increasingly localised impact on specific population demographics. According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), early evidence suggests that women will be hit harder than in previous economic downturns. Already struggling with underrepresentation in senior management roles, and the disparity in pay between genders, the Covid crisis has provided added challenges in many sectors where women play a leading role.

The WTO points out that a larger share of women – than men – work in services that have been directly affected by regional and international travel restrictions, such as tourism and business travel, as well as in parts of the economy where remote work simply isn’t possible. 

The workplace 

For a snapshot of the employment picture for women immediately before the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s worth looking at the UK as a developed country case study. At the time, women held 79 per cent of jobs in the health and social work sector and 70 per cent of jobs in education, and constituted a predominant portion of the retail workforce, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. These are areas that may not lend themselves easily to remote work.

While the rate of employment among women was at a record high, 40 per cent were working part time compared to 13 per cent of men. Meanwhile, median weekly pay for women working full time was £528, whereas for men it was £628. By contrast, those in developing nations are at further risk. Many lack the opportunities and IT training to be able to work remotely, which means they’re also at greater risk of contracting the virus while working. 

From here, a picture begins to emerge of women around the world locked out of opportunity, locked into lower pay, and being at greater risk of exposure to the virus as the world adjusts itself to a post-pandemic reality. 

Trade 

When it comes to female entrepreneurs, the picture is not any brighter. Sectors such as tourism and hospitality – in which women are particularly active as employers or employees, according to the WTO – have also been affected by international travel and trade restrictions imposed by countries to contain the pandemic. These sectors are also expected to experience a relatively slow recovery because of lower consumer confidence and ongoing restrictions on people’s movement. 

Governments around the world are increasingly taking steps to protect the position of women. For example, we already saw pre-pandemic the use of gender impact assessments (European Institute for Gender Equality) when preparing for trade negotiations, to determine whether any laws, policies and programmes are likely to have an impact on the state of equality between women and men. The UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which is aimed at enhancing cooperation between Japan and the UK, includes commitments on promoting women and gender empowerment in international trade.

Immigration

According to UN Women, Covid could cause 25 million jobs to be lost globally, with women migrant workers among the most heavily affected. Those who remain in work often find their employment to be informalised, short term if not part time, placing them in the most vulnerable corner of an increasingly fraught and insecure job market. All the while, they have no safety net, limited access to healthcare and travel restrictions limiting their opportunities to explore other avenues for work. 

And this doesn’t merely affect the individual. Millions of migrant women send remittances home to their families and communities every year. Loss of income because of the pandemic can therefore impact dependent vulnerability and affect future generations of women. 

There is a challenging balance to be struck between ensuring both flexibility in an immigration system and adequate levels of protection against misuse and bad practice, but there are measures that could be taken to minimise risk. Job security could be offered by employing or redeploying migrants in public works programmes, such as the production of masks and PPE, addressing critical gaps in supply at the same time. Flexibility for sponsoring employers to offer part-time work opportunities in place of termination – where full-time salaries cannot be met – would protect income and productivity. 

Helping women navigate Covid

When challenges are sewn together, the pandemic can present a disproportionate impact on women, beyond the immediate health risks of contracting the virus. These risks threaten women in myriad roles: as business leaders, employees or migrant workers. 

While these dangers were prevalent – and acknowledged – before Covid struck, the pandemic has amplified the potential impact. And the world needs to make a concerted effort to make sure that women’s rights, and their opportunities, continue to blossom, not only for the generation of women in the workplace now, but for the generations of working women that will follow. 

Seema Farazi is EMEIA PAS Covid-19 response leader and global immigration partner, Sally Jones is UK and Ireland trade strategy and Brexit leader, and Katherine Savage is financial services and national markets partner, all at EY

* The views in this article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of EY or its member firms

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