According to a recent Mckinsey report, the global pandemic has disproportionately impacted female employees. Women are 1.8 times more likely to lose or feel forced to leave their jobs due to COVID-19 than their male counterparts.
There are many reasons for this, one being the rise in unpaid caring responsibilities for children and loved ones, a role which is still filled most often by women. Furthermore, research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has found that women are approximately one-third more likely to work in a sector that has been forced to close due to COVID-19.
If employers fail to tackle this issue head-on, they could lose some of their best workers, and there could be a regressive impact on gender equality in the workplace.
What You Can Do as an Employer
Businesses across almost every sector are facing challenging times economically, strategically, and operationally. It can be tempting to squeeze as much productivity out of each employee as possible.
But in the long-term, retaining the most qualified and experienced staff will cut recruitment costs, boost the company brand and help the business ride out the tumultuous months ahead.
So, how can you support your female employees to continue working?
1. Redefine “Flexible Working”
Many employers believe that they offer flexible working, but in these unprecedented times, a new, more radical approach is needed. Allowing remote working and providing the home office technology and support to do so is now a given.
Employers must go further by offering employees the option to reduce their hours temporarily, even swapping from a full-time role to part-time. Job-sharing might also be a solution for some people. If an individual is struggling to meet their work quota but cannot afford to drop their hours, employers could consider paying their full-time salary for fewer hours — this may seem disingenuous at a time when the budget is already thinly stretched, but factor in the cost of recruiting, onboarding and training new staff, and the logic becomes clear.
Flexible working is especially important for female workers who often assume the primary care role for children and family members. The freedom to finish a little early, swap working days, or reduce hours could make the difference between an employee remaining with the company or feel forced to leave.
2. Consider Individual Circumstances
COVID-19 and its ramifications are impacting everybody differently. “Fair” leadership does not always mean treating people exactly the same.
Your employees’ needs will vary significantly. Perhaps one person is caring for a partner with COVID-19 and caring for their children alongside work, while another is struggling with their mental health due to the restrictions on social interactions. COVID-19 affects men and women differently — men are more likely to die after contracting the virus, partly because they account for a higher percentage of “key roles”. In part, women have a higher risk of unemployment due to the nature of their work being less easy to do remotely. It’s unlikely that the same solution will meet the needs of both employees.
Adopting a case-by-case approach to supporting people will allow you to boost employee engagement and retention.
3. Reassess Your Approach to Performance Management
An employee should not be penalized for switching to a flexible working schedule that suits them or accepting an offer to reduce their hours temporarily. Leaders must adapt their means of monitoring and measuring performance, setting goals, and developing staff to accommodate individual ways of working.
Over the past year, organizations have been forced to rapidly update their performance management process in response to the pandemic and the rise in remote working. As the primary carers in many households, women should not have to sacrifice their future career prospects or miss out on recognition and rewards because the responsibility has fallen to them for childcare during the pandemic.
Performance management should be an ongoing conversation that includes agile goals that can be easily adapted to meet the changing needs of the business and the individual.
4. Embrace New Ways of Working
If a significant number of your employees are working remotely and very likely juggling their professional and home lives simultaneously, now is the time to review employee expectations and ways of working.
While a flexible approach to work is essential for many people, it can help to impose more structure in some aspects of daily operations. For example, setting aside a fixed period each day or week for internal meetings can help parents plan their work around childcare commitments.
It’s also important to review the technology, process, and systems in use. An office-based role where colleagues are a short walk away from each other is a completely different environment to one in which people are communicating entirely online. Avoid “death by email” by switching to a short-form, real-time communication platform such as Slack. This can reduce time — Slack messages tend to be short and relatively informal and boost employee engagement, team working, and morale.
After decades of improving gender equality in the workplace and narrowing the gender pay gap, COVID-19 threatens to force progress backward by ousting women from their jobs. Employers must put effort into retaining female employees for the long-term benefit of their businesses and keeping society moving forward.
Stuart Hearn is a speaker, people management specialist, and the CEO & Founder of performance-tech company Clear Review. With 20 years’ HR experience, both as an HR Director at Sony Music and a consultant, he has spent the last 10 years helping organizations to embed practices that engage, develop and retain their people.