A week from now, the world will once again mark International Women’s Day (IWD) with this year’s theme being “Choose to Challenge.” It’s a call to push back against gender bias and inequality wherever we encounter it, a call to challenge the status quo so that we can create a more inclusive world. This coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic has given us – men and women alike – so much cause to heed that call.
While the global health crisis has disrupted lives everywhere, it has had a particularly detrimental effect on working women. A United Nations policy brief released in April 2020 warned of the pandemic’s “compounded economic impact” on women and girls who generally earn less, save less and hold insecure jobs. With women taking on a bigger burden of unpaid care work, they are also making greater sacrifices at their jobs, in some cases opting to drop out of the workforce entirely to care for their children or other family members.
A Deloitte survey of 385 working women globally conducted in the third quarter of 2020 yielded similar findings: 82 percent said their lives have been negatively disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and of this proportion, nearly 70 percent are worried their career growth may be limited as a result. In the Philippines, we rolled out the survey within our network and found that 75 percent of working Filipinas now have more responsibility for household chores, while an almost equal proportion – 73 percent – say their workload has also increased. Of the 108 local respondents, nearly 60 percent were either the primary income earners in their households or earned as much as their partner or other family members.
Besides being stretched thin juggling the growing demands at home and at work, these working women also have to consider the broader impact of potentially losing their jobs or missing out on a promotion or pay raise considering the income share they contribute to their households.
What can we as employers do to make sure these women get the support they need and do not fall behind in their career progression? Here are some inclusive measures organizations may want to consider.
Make flexible working the norm. Our survey revealed that one of the biggest concerns working women have about advancing in their careers is the lack of work/life balance. Institutionalizing flexible working options can help address this issue. And by “flexible,” we don’t just mean allowing people to work from home, which has become a necessity during this pandemic. Flexibility can come in the form of reduced work hours; working longer but for fewer days each week; or job sharing – i.e., having two people work part-time or on a reduced-time basis to perform a job normally done by one person working full-time. This also involves cultivating a workplace culture that supports employees who take advantage of these flexible options without fear of career penalty. Otherwise, flexible working will not become fully embedded within an organization.
Lead with empathy and trust. During this period of great anxiety and disruption, the need for leaders and managers to have open and supportive conversations with their teams has never been higher. In the Philippines, 43 percent of our survey respondents said regular check-ins with leaders who are genuinely concerned about their well-being is a good way of supporting them in their careers. Approaching those check-ins with empathy will allow leaders to understand the short-term constraints their employees may be facing and from there, find ways to support them so that they can keep building on their long-term prospects within the organization.
Promote networking, mentorship and sponsorship. Networking, mentorship, and sponsorship opportunities can be meaningful platforms for career growth. But organizations have to make sure these opportunities are offered in ways that ensure more women can actually leverage them. An early morning networking breakfast, for example, may not be feasible for working moms who use that time to get their households ready for the day.
Create learning opportunities that fit employees’ daily lives. In keeping with flexible working, employers may also want to consider more flexible, practical approaches to offering learning programs or professional development courses to workers. At Deloitte, for example, we have a platform of curated digital learning materials and programs that learners can access at their convenience and depending on the expertise they need. The goal is to empower workers to continue their learning journeys despite the significant changes to their daily lives caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ensure that reward, succession, and promotion processes address unconscious bias. Addressing unconscious bias has always been important in structuring reward and promotion processes. But during this period of remote working, it becomes even more important because the way people are contributing to the team may have significantly changed. In our survey, for example, 68 percent of working women in the Philippines said they feel the need to be always available from a work perspective, likely because of the blurred lines between office space and the home. Business leaders have to make sure they aren’t unconsciously perpetuating this unhealthy expectation by penalizing workers who may have to take time off work to attend to caregiving responsibilities.
As IWD approaches, I hope business leaders seriously consider taking up one or two (or all!) of these measures as their “Choose to Challenge” action. It would be our way of making sure all the gains we’ve made in recent years to achieve gender equality in the workplace are not undone by one health crisis. Let’s do our part to include working women in rebuilding and recovering from this pandemic.
The author is the Risk Advisory Leader of Navarro Amper & Co., a member of the Deloitte Asia Pacific Network. For comments or questions, email [email protected] Deloitte Asia Pacific Ltd. is a company limited by guarantee and a member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd. Members of Deloitte Asia Pacific Ltd. and their related entities, each of which are separate and independent legal entities, provide services from more than 100 cities across the region, including Auckland, Bangkok, Beijing, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Melbourne, Osaka, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei, Tokyo and Yangon.