2020 was universally difficult due to the physical, mental, social and financial impacts of COVID-19. However, some groups had more challenges than others. Women in the workplace, in particular, have seen many preexisting inequities become worse during the pandemic - and those inequities remain. Addressing these problems will require a multi-faceted approach from business leaders.

Gender equity is a longstanding issue

Even before COVID-19, businesses struggled to support gender equity. While women ran more Fortune 500 companies than ever in 2020 — and that number is set to grow to 41 this year, according to Forbes — that still represents just over 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs, and the pipeline to senior leadership is riddled with gender gaps in organisations big and small.

The pay gap between genders is another problem that organisations haven't been able to solve. Women still face salary disparities because of their gender, and they also encounter barriers in obtaining higher paying positions.

Complications exacerbated during the pandemic

The pandemic highlighted the existing challenges for women in the workplace. When lockdowns were ordered to curb the spread of the virus, offices closed, and people shifted to working from home — but with schools and daycare centers also closed, parents had to juggle childcare and work responsibilities. Women often bore the brunt of these additional responsibilities.

ADP surveyed over 32,000 workers globally to understand how their work-life has changed in the wake of COVID-19. It is worth noting that stress management ranks as a greater challenge for women than it does for men – something that employers will want to be particularly alert to.

There could be many reasons for this – one being the heavy burden many women are assuming for childcare and home-schooling which has been widely reported in many countries. At the same time, however, the survey findings point to other potential causes of stress among women: less assurance around job prospects than men, and the feeling of being comparatively undervalued at work.

Women are less confident than their male colleagues about their ability to find a new job that offers pay and flexibility that is comparable to their current one. The survey findings also show that men are more likely than women to get a bonus or pay rise for taking on additional responsibilities.

Recognising the cost of inequality

If left unaddressed, the pandemic's lingering effects could reverse much of the already slow progress that has been made to create equality and diversity in the workplace in recent years.

This is no small problem. Just from a financial perspective, having women fully participating in the workplace helps businesses, as numerous studies have shown that organisations with diverse and inclusive teams are more innovative and profitable. The economy benefits when more women work and receive fair pay. Unfortunately, even as the economy recovers, the unemployment situation is generally improving more slowly for women than it is for men.

Addressing the COVID-19 gender gap

Businesses cannot afford to wait until the economy fully recovers to address the gender gap. Businesses must determine whether they have gender wage gaps now. If they find that they do have gaps, the next step is to develop and implement strategies that help address the issue and build for the future.

  • Assess your data to see if women in the workplace are compensated equitably, in terms of both base salary and bonuses. Don't just look at the senior employees — look at employees at every level. You will also need to consider more than current salaries to get to the root of the problem, as women are often hired at lower wages than men and have a more difficult time catching up. Taking time to understand where the issues lie can ultimately help you tackle equity problems in the initial stages of hiring and employment, rather than retroactively.
  • Determine what policies or procedures can be changed to help employees. For example, to assist remote employees, some businesses now schedule meetings for 10 minutes past the hour, allowing working parents to get their kids set up on their online classes that start on the hour.
  • Be flexible. Allow telecommuting and flexible schedules when possible. Instead of focusing on when the work gets done, focus on getting the work done.
  • Look at career opportunities for women in areas of growth. Due to COVID-19, many organisations were pressed to accelerate their digital transformation, and as businesses move forward now, their employees will need upskilling and reskilling. Leaders also need to intentionally provide employees with opportunities in areas of growth. Some positions, like data scientists, do require technical skills, but they also need essential skills and qualities that employees may already have, like problem-solving capabilities and emotional intelligence. With the right training and development, women who were on limited career tracks can expand their possibilities with support from organisation leadership.

Many women in the workforce did not fare well in 2020, but 2021 can be the year when businesses step up and make the necessary changes to close gender gaps and elevate the experience of women in the workplace.

Original article by ADP Spark.