The COVID-19 pandemic has hit all sectors of society and the economy extremely hard — particularly women. In December 2020, 100 percent of job losses in the United States were women, and primarily women of color.
In a roundtable event hosted by Aon, industry experts from the U.S. and EU came together to dissect the impact of the pandemic on women in the workforce, and what options help us reduce the pressures on women.
COVID-19 has hit women hard. From working on the front lines to extra childcare needs to losing jobs, women are feeling more pressure than ever.
In a roundtable event hosted by Aon, industry experts from the U.S. and EU came together to dissect the damaging impact of the pandemic on women in the workforce, and what options could help us reduce the pressures on women. CHRISTA DAVIES, Chief Financial Officer at Aon, kicked off the event.
CHRISTA DAVIES: This exit, voluntary or otherwise, has exacerbated existing demographic pressures within the workforce globally, and within national economies, by reducing human capital in the economy. These challenges threaten not just women, but our society as a whole. COVID-19 is a key opportunity for us to reassess our approach to gender equality in the workplace.
Women are on the front lines of the workforce, which put them in a vulnerable position during the pandemic. ELIZABETH SHULER is the secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions representing 13 million workers across the U.S. economy.
ELIZABETH SHULER: Working women are the ones who’ve been getting us through this pandemic. One in three working women are on the front lines, working as essential workers. And as essential workers, women are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 as an occupational health risk. I also want to emphasize that women of color disproportionately perform the care jobs that are so critical to the economy. It’s the work that women do that connects us all and enables all of us to do the work that we do. During the worst public health crisis in a century, the burden is falling disproportionately on women.
Women in management roles, already squeezed by the demands of families and an always-on workplace, have faced enormous pressure during the pandemic. SANDY BOSS is the global head of investment stewardship at BlackRock, an asset manager for individuals and institutions.
SANDY BOSS: Even though in many families, we do see a delightful co-parenting 50/50 split, on average, throughout the economy, it hasn’t been that way in this pandemic. And what we see particularly in our own statistics, is how professional women in management roles, in our managing director level, are particularly burdened, so they have an incredible lifestyle challenge of 24/seven work, inbound emails at all times. At the same time, they’re handling this sort of extra care role. And interestingly, one of the things that we hear over and over, particularly from our women managers, is the pressure that they play, giving emotional support to their teams.
Beyond the physical dangers of the pandemic, the extra pressure is negatively impacting women’s mental health as well. MATHILDE MESNARD is the deputy director at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
MATHILDE MESNARD: There has been a very important impact on women and girls’ mental health during the crisis. We have seen increased reported rates of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, etc. So this is something that is now becoming visible. Of course, we had before the crisis, the women that were much more vulnerable economically than men, because they tend to have non-standard and informal jobs. And this, non-standard and informal jobs translates into, in many cases, into lower wages, of course, lower entitlements, lower access to security, social security benefits, also weaker job protections, fewer opportunities to access training, and reemployment opportunities, etc., etc.
What can be done? In order to help women now, and build a better workplace for women in the future, corporations and governments need to step in. ELIZABETH MCCAUL is a member of the Supervisory Board of the European Central Bank.
ELIZABETH MCCAUL: There are things we’ve learned in this pandemic. And we have learned, of course, that there’s a lot that we can do differently, and there’s a lot that we have learned, that we thought wasn’t possible. We did not understand the level of flexibility that could be brought to the workforce. And in fact, if we look at this other side of the coin, we can expect that women can disproportionately be affected to the positive, from learning from the pandemic, and some of the things that have happened.
So in terms of social policy, there are things that we can introduce that have flexibility as the foundation. There are things that we can introduce into the social policy that affect the workforce, that allow for women to do things at different hours, allow for them to be supported by childcare, by care workers in general, which are necessary for getting them back into the workforce. There are things that social policy can do to incentivize business, to invest in childcare, emergency care, the things that caregiving women are required to do, that interfere with their workday.
I think we really have to embrace the work-life balance. That has to be something that isn’t just talked about, it has to be something that is both understood as a social moray, and is present in the cultures of our organizations, both at the government level, and in businesses. But it’s also something that needs to have a foundation in law, and to drive some of the culture. Having this grounded in law, and in regulation, is something that I think will help to drive the changes that we need, to make it possible for women to participate much more effectively in the overall workforce.
Thanks to all the participants of this roundtable discussion, originally part of Aon’s panel discussion: The Decline of Women’s Labour Market Participation during COVID-19: A Systemic Risk. Learn more at aon.com.