How COVID has impacted working women (and what to do about it)

While COVID-19 has disproportionately affected working women more than men, UNSW Canberra research has found a hybrid workplace could help progress gender equality

It has been more than a year since the first COVID-19 cases were discovered in China and the virus has subsequently impacted 200 countries around the world, claiming 2.5 million lives. Globally, people have become accustomed to lockdowns of varying lengths based upon location and policies, children learning at home remotely rather than in person for extended periods, and some degree of working from home.

While it is fair to say most people have been impacted, have men and women been impacted by COVID-19 equally? Dr Sue Williamson, Senior Lecturer in the School of Business at UNSW Canberra, says COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting women in negative ways.  “If we look within the labour market, we know that women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and that women lost jobs at a faster rate than men did,” she says. 

“Many of the essential services such as retail and hospitality, which are areas that were shut down during lockdown, are all female-dominated. Particular industries, including childcare and healthcare, also have a higher ratio of female employees and those industries were hard hit. Similarly, the casual labour force is dominated by women who as casual workers were excluded from JobKeeper, and many will find it harder to get back into the labour market."

The casual labour force is dominated by women who as casual workers were excluded from JobKeeper-min.jpg
The casual labour force is dominated by women who as casual workers were excluded from JobKeeper. Image: Shutterstock

Why a hybrid workplace is the 'workplace of the future'

In terms of organisational aspects, Dr Williamson’s research, Working during the pandemic: from resistance to revolution, suggests that some changes that COVID-19 had on businesses and industry are a mixed bag for women. While research shows women are doing more unpaid domestic and caring work compared to men, both genders report working from home allows for a more balanced family life and reported higher engagement with their job. In fact, of the 6000 Australian public service employees surveyed for this study, two-thirds indicated they felt they had more autonomy, were more productive at home than in the office, and would like to continue working from home two to three days per week in the future. 

“Global research indicates that a hybrid workplace is the workplace of the future,” says Dr Williamson. however, significant policy and organisational changes are still needed to achieve gender equality in the workplace. Equal career progression opportunities and equal pay are still needed. 

Read more: How COVID-19 has reshaped manager attitudes about working from home

“If there is one thing that the Australian government could do to increase women’s workforce participation and therefore improve gender equality – it’s to make childcare more affordable,” says Dr Williamson. “Scandinavian countries do this really well and women in those countries have huge participation rates in the labour market. However, in Australia it’s relatively low because women are working part-time and that has flow-on effects to superannuation and career opportunities.

“Working from home and flexible working hours as a result of the pandemic has allowed some women to return to work full-time, but to create lasting change we have to dismantle the ideal worker norm within society that is built around an employee who can work 9 to 5, doesn’t have any caring responsibilities, and is available to work longer hours.”

Significant policy and organisational changes are still needed to achieve gender equality in the workplace-min.jpg
Significant policy and organisational changes are still needed to achieve gender equality in the workplace. Image: Shutterstock

Balancing work and home

Michelle Lees, who completed her Executive MBA through AGSM @ UNSW Business School in 2015 and now works as a Regional Campaign Manager for HP agrees. As a mum of three children, she appreciates the flexibility HP is providing in terms of flexible working hours and the ability to work from home in response to COVID-19. However, she says COVID-19 has been disproportionately more difficult for working mums. 

“I am fortunate in that my partner works from home himself and is the family chef who is used to keeping our home running smoothly because I travelled a lot before COVID-19,” she says. “However, my partner did not engage in the schooling much at all. E-learning platforms were a nightmare and it was not possible to do my job and keep track of schooling for three children who are different ages. Also, I have a conscientious child concerned about not being good enough or falling behind in school and this required a lot of discussion and support, so schooling and the ‘counsellor’ aspect all fell to me.” 

Read more: How COVID-19 could accelerate the rise of smart cities

Jodie Beattie, a current full-time student at AGSM and mum of two children under five also reports COVID-19 has been more challenging for women like her who have a background in the Australian Army. “I have been required to attend online classes with children at home and conduct most of my study at night, which has resulted in high-stress levels,” she says. “When both parents are home it is common that they ‘let dad work’ and ask mum for everything!”  

Adjunct Professor Abigail Powell at the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW, says that while some organisations have been resistant to the idea of flexible work practices prior to COVID-19, there is a shift to keep hold of some of these changes in the long-term, rather than simply returning to the pre-COVID-19 status. 

“Working from home a few days per week and the ability to request flexible working hours will be positive aspects resulting from COVID-19 for both women, parents and people with disabilities or long-term health conditions, for whom office or site-based work and standard hours can be challenging,” she says. 

Companies are realising that they don’t need big office buildings in the CBDs and manager mindsets are changing-min.jpg
Companies are realising that they don’t need big office buildings in the CBDs and manager mindsets are changing. Image: Shutterstock

“I would encourage employers to consider how much of the work we assume needs to be face-to-face actually needs to be, and I encourage flexibility to be embedded within as many job roles as possible,” says Adjunct Professor Powell. 

Dr Williamson says she is encouraged by the transformation in the way people are working that will continue to play out in the next few years. 

“In terms of the labour market impacts of COVID-19, women have fared the worst,” she says, “but at the same time, companies are realising that they don’t need big office buildings in the CBDs and manager mindsets are changing. A hybrid model of work is developing that will have long-term impacts. Enabling women to work from home and request flexible working hours may therefore progress gender equality.”

For more information, please contact Dr Sue Williamson, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management in the School of Business at UNSW Canberra.


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