The impact of COVID on gender inequality: what are the long-term consequences?

The COVID pandemic impacted the careers of women and men differently, and there are important lessons in this for the future, writes UNSW Business School’s Karin Sanders

It is well known that the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on the careers of young people in particular. Due to the mandatory working from home, it took much longer for new employees to become aware of the company's 'up and down’ and getting to know colleagues only happened virtually and as such remained formal for a long time.

As a result, many young, starting employees had the feeling of 'not really belonging' for a long time. But what do we actually know about the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on the (career) differences between women and men? Have women had the opportunity to reduce the existing differences or have the differences between women and men in pay and career opportunities only widened?

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UNSW Business School's Karin Sanders says the issues of merging home and the workplace have been particularly prevalent for women in the first two years of the pandemic. Photo: supplied

Some employees look back fondly on the mandatory working from home and in surveys they often mention the time savings in travel time that resulted. No longer being on the road every morning and late afternoon and being stuck in traffic jams has made many people realise how much time they spent on the road each week. The flexibility to shift work to the evening or weekend is also mentioned as an advantage of compulsory working from home.

Other employees emphasise the disadvantages of working from home. They mention the lack of contact with their colleagues and the lack of a clear boundary between being at home and work as disadvantages of this time. Suddenly home and workplace were no longer two different places but had become the same place.

The issues of merging home and the workplace have been particularly prevalent for women in the first two years of the pandemic. It is well known that in the situation of two-income households in a house or apartment with two bedrooms, the husband annexed the study or guest room, while the wife had the kitchen table available. In the case of a smaller house, the bedroom also became an office for 'him', and here too was the kitchen table for 'her'. This meant that while men had their own space, women had a space that also became a place for breakfast, lunch and dinner at certain times.

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In other words: while men still had a distinction between work and home places, women sat at the same table all day long. In case the two earners have children, who were home-schooled during the pandemic, it seemed more or less obvious that the women became responsible for this home-schooling. After all, it all happened at ‘her’ kitchen table.

I heard so many stories from female and male colleagues that carry a high degree of "naturally" and "of course" mentality. Of course, my husband has the office at his disposal because “his work is more important,” “he earns the most so he must have the most space to do his job well” and “he has more effort to do his job well, and I can adapt better to the new situation.” Without any negotiation or deliberation, women and men seemed to plunge into gender stereotype patterns that we had worked to reduce or resolve for so long.

It is clear that men were able to perform their work in a good or even better way because of these situations, while women had difficulty completing their work every day in a good way, often with a lot of stress. The consequences in the promotions of women and men in recent years are also clear. Women mostly suffered from the pandemic, men seem to benefit from it.

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Some employees look back fondly on the mandatory working from home and often mention the time savings in travel time that resulted. Photo: Getty

There was long good hope that these negative consequences for women would disappear when mandatory working from home was lifted and women and men moved to hybrid and remote work arrangements. However, nothing seems less true. While virtually no clear relationships can be found between employee characteristics, such as age, experience, and education, and their preferences for a particular form of hybrid work, the differences in preferences between women and men in this respect are persistent.

While the majority of employees today opt for a work arrangement of some days at work and some days at home, women who prefer to be at work for two days and men who prefer to be at work for three days. Is this an important difference? No, or at least minimal when it comes to being able to do the job properly, but 'yes' when it comes to visibility at work. You run into your manager more often in three days than in two days. And that same visibility turns out to be an important criterion for subsequent promotion.

Fortunately, I rarely lose sleep over my work, but sometimes I lose sleep over the current patterns and preferences of women and men in hybrid work, and in particular the consequences of these patterns in five or ten years. As in most Western countries, achieving gender balance in senior management positions in Australia still seems to be an issue.

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Current work patterns do not seem to be conducive to achieving this balance. The opposite seems to be the case. Although I am not in favour of requiring employees to be present at work for a number of days, it could be a solution for gender inequality. So: “From now on, everyone, women and men, will be present at work for three days”.

 Karin Sanders is Senior Deputy Dean (Research & Enterprise), co-founder of the The Hybrid Work Leadership Lab and a Professor in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School. For more information please contact Professor Sanders directly.


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