Over the last weeks, COVID-19 has drawn attention to countless challenges we face as a society, chief among them is our ability to quickly adapt to change. As we continue working towards building flexible, thoughtful, and resilient workplaces, one pressing issue is easily overlooked: gender equality and inclusion. Studies have shown that the pandemic is exacerbating inequalities between men and women in significant ways, creating new challenges for women, and putting more pressure on women around the world.

As part of our Women Transforming the Workplace program, we held a panel discussion with female leaders to discuss the ways in which the pandemic is disproportionately impacting women. With insights from these diversity and inclusion champions, we explored approaches businesses can take to prioritize diversity and inclusion in the face of COVID-19,  ensure a safe return to work for female employees, and consider how the future of work will change. Watch the full discussion below.

what unique challenges do women face in times of crisis? 

The consequences of COVID-19 impact women in different spheres of their lives: at work, at home, and in their health. Globally, women represent around 70% of all health and social sector workers (WHO). In the majority of cases, they earn less than their men counterparts. Many women also work part-time or with flexible schedules, which often means they don’t have a safety net in case of reduced hours or job loss. In general, women are more economically affected by the pandemic than men.

Women also face greater challenges at home. In many households, women are the primary caregivers for children and elderly relatives. With the closure of daycares and schools, additional care, such as homeschooling, is taken on by women. The financial burden of COVID-19 coupled with increased stress levels can lead to household tension and more domestic violence, which disproportionately impacts women. 

It’s no secret that healthcare and social service workers, a higher proportion of whom are women, are more vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure due to constant contact with others. Pregnant women are also at higher risk due to their reliance on a functioning healthcare system. If the system is overloaded, there can be many health risks for women who need to be closely monitored. To learn more about the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, download the report below. 

does your organization prioritize job security for women?

According to our research about unconscious biases, 62% of working Canadian women identify gender discrimination as an obstacle to female leadership.  In the context of a pandemic, this sense of insecurity is amplified. As women juggle the roles of parent, caretaker, and colleague, there is a heightened need for empathy, and organizations have a responsibility to give their employees access to opportunities and support.

Many employers have found that, in times of crisis, business norms can be challenged. Companies with no remote work policies are fully operational from home. Workplaces with strict 9-to-5 office hours are providing flexible schedules. As a leader, what can you do to equip the women in your team with the confidence and security they need to work during COVID-19? This will look different for each organization. Providing alternate hours and split days, reducing workloads, and focusing on strategy instead of production are a few ways to prioritize inclusion. By keeping mental health in mind as we navigate this crisis, organizations have a better chance of  significantly reducing the negative impact of COVID-19 on their workforce. 

why is it important to support gender diversity during COVID-19?

Many studies have shown that a diverse workplace drives customer and employee loyalty, increased worker engagement, and a higher capacity for innovation. It’s no secret that people are paying particular attention to how companies respond to the crisis. Are you prioritizing the wellbeing of your workers? Are you doing your best to promote health and safety? Are you adapting your product or service to better serve your community? Gender diversity and inclusion should always be a priority, but your policies and procedures are under a microscope in times of crisis. 

Today, diversity and inclusion are more important than ever as it brings together various ideas, experiences, and voices, which are necessary for organizations to innovate at full capacity. Statistically, women are considered to be champions of soft-skills: the ability to be creative, make connections, provide issue resolution, adapt to change, and tune in to their surroundings. These skills and strengths are essential to tackle the challenges brought about by COVID-19. 

your company is balanced at the executive level, but what’s next?

In Canada, “women hold only 25% of vice-president positions, and 15% of CEO positions” (Canadian Women’s Foundation). Although this is an indication that gender equality is reaching the leadership level, there is still work to be done. The number of women in executive roles only matter if they have equal input and equal decision-making power. Ensure that women in leadership positions are empowered to speak up and are given equal opportunities to voice their ideas. 

If your company has fair representation among its leaders, your next focus should be on integrating it throughout the organization. Being equal and inclusive means making changes at all levels. Consider implementing mentorship programs, building gender balanced teams, and recognizing the contributions of women in your organization.

As leaders, we must acknowledge that COVID-19 is impacting various demographic groups differently. To support your teams, provide to help manage stress and anxiety. This will look different for every organization, but simple gestures like frequently touching base with individual employees, maintaining transparent communication, and reinforcing a sense of safety through empathy can go a long way. The difficult work of creating  fair and balanced workplaces demands that we recognize the difference between equality and equity. Every worker has individual needs and faces unique challenges. Promoting diversity means providing opportunities that help each person reach their full potential. 

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