Updated: Nov 11, 2021
We have fewer women in the workforce today compared to three decades ago.
That’s right, compared to 1990, we have a lower proportion of employable women in the job market in 2021.
This is driven by the number of women in low and middle-income work who have lost or chosen to leave their work in the past twelve months due to COVID-19. Disproportionately, women shouldered the additional burden of homeschooling and child care when schools closed and governments recommended distancing from those outside our household bubble. Most of us know of or have spoken to working mothers, or mothers with young children who have struggled more in the past year compared to pre-pandemic times. US Vice President Kamala Harris called this loss of 2.5 million women from the workforce a national emergency.
The World Economic Forum estimated that it will take 268 years for us to close the economic gender gap. The shift towards automation and digitalization negatively impacts women. Women tend to hold more jobs that are likely to become obsolete due to automation. The rise in jobs in digitalization such as cloud computing and engineering tend not to benefit women who are underrepresented in these sectors. These jobs tend to command higher salaries which exacerbates the economic gender divide.
Further, more than one in four women are considering taking a step back in their careers or leaving the workplace. We have a “broken rung” problem in leadership, as only eighty-five women are promoted to first-time manager positions for every hundred men. Senior-level women are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their role or leave the workforce because of COVID-19. Almost three-quarters cited burnout as the reason for their decision.
Future of Workplace
With vaccination rolling out across the world, companies are trying to figure out what office life will look like in a post-pandemic world. Almost three-quarters of knowledge workers surveyed preferred the option of hybrid-remote-and-office work, over exclusively remote work or exclusively office work. This raises many questions for the office manager. Does this mean two to three days a week in the office? Or two weeks in a month in the office? Can employees decide which days they will be in the office? Or should the team manager determine which days their team members should be in the office?
Let’s set aside the office manager's headache for a moment. I think it is wonderful that companies are listening to their employees and providing this hybrid work flexibility. But how could this change impact gender equality in the future?
As we have seen from COVID-19, women still tend to be the primary carers in the home. As such, we can expect more women (than before the pandemic) to take up flexible and remote work opportunities. Prior to the pandemic, those who were more “present”, whether at after-work drinks or weekend golf games, tended to hear first about interesting projects, new work opportunities, or promotions, before those outside this inner circle. The flexibility of remote work could create two classes of employees within the office, and increase division and segregation.
How many of us have felt guilty when we stepped away from our computers during “office hours”? We need to get away from the “punch clock” mindset, thinking we are operating in a factory, clocking in and clocking out at set hours every day. In a knowledge economy, we need to get away from the “face time” or presenteeism mindset. Let’s look at professional service firms that evaluate employees against target utilization rates. Their bonus depends on the quantity of hours worked, rather than how innovative the individual is, or how well the person collaborates with others.
In my investment banking days, an analyst on my team automated part of the regular work he had to do in Excel. This saved Max at least an hour each day. It also helped some of the others on the desk be more efficient in their work because he showed them what he did. I’d gladly let him leave earlier and have that additional hour of sleep that analysts were often deprived of. But Max was afraid he would be penalized during performance reviews for not doing enough “face time”, he didn’t leave even though he had finished his work.
This line of thinking makes no sense. We should be measured based on the value that we bring to our team, not how many hours we spend in the office or whether we work on Sundays. We should ask “How do we measure creativity and teamwork?”, rather than “How often do they respond to emails late at night?”. We need to learn how to evaluate output instead of rewarding the show they put on.
In an environment where we have fewer opportunities to bump into others in the hallway, we are more likely to default to people whom we know when a new project or work opportunity comes up. I spoke to Paula who started her new job a few months ago. She is in a hybrid work environment and can choose to work from home or the office. She chooses to be in the office every day because a few of the senior executives work from the office. She wants to be “visible” to them and is afraid she will miss out on work opportunities if she works from home.
As hinted earlier, the option of flexible work is a double-edged sword that could impact women more than men. Paula does not take advantage of the flexibility of working from home that could support her work-life balance and enable her to spend more time with her family. She is afraid of the potential repercussions. Paula does not want to be discriminated against or be seen as the woman who prioritizes her family over her work.
How could Paula’s manager democratize the distribution of work? How about a depository of projects, where team members throw their name in the hat, and managers pick the best candidate? Perhaps we can take it one step further, and anonymize the candidacy, where only the skills of the person and recommendations are provided, but not the name of the person? How will this impact the overall learning and development of the team?
I think this is a great opportunity for Altruistic Capitalists to create a positive impact for their women employees, and community, and support their bottom line. The workplace changes brought on by COVID-19 require managers to listen closely to what is working for their team and be aware of their own biases. Now that we see the people we work with more over Zoom and less in person, more than ever managers need to communicate better and seek to understand. Employees will feel heard and be more engaged, resulting in a loyal and diverse workforce that can only drive the business forward.