COVID-19 crisis impact: More gender equality in the workplace
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COVID-19 crisis impact: More gender equality in the workplace

The pandemic accelerated the shift to remote and flexible working which may prove to be a meaningful catalyst for higher female labor market participation rates – at least in some professions – provided this new way of working becomes less stigmatized and more popular for all.

Although women have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis from an employment perspective, they may eventually end up benefiting from the broader acceptance of non-standard work arrangements as a result of the pandemic. Provided that more flexible working arrangements are made available to both men and women and wage penalties for work flexibility are reduced, we can expect better labor market participation of women and reduced gender pay gaps in the future – at least in a few sectors in developed markets.

COVID-19 crisis affected women more than men

As COVID-19 prompted large-scale lockdowns globally, women's jobs and incomes were disproportionately impacted: The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 4.2% of women's employment worldwide was destroyed between 2019 and 2020 versus just 3% of men's employment. Along with disappearing employment, women have also dropped out of the labor market in greater numbers as additional childcare and housework responsibilities during the pandemic fell disproportionately on them.

Unequal distribution of home duties means that women are more likely to be secondary earners in their households and are more likely to drop out of the workforce. This is threatening decades of progress.

Supporting women in their return to the labor market

The ILO expects that even though the projected employment growth in 2021 for women will likely exceed that of men, it will prove insufficient to bring women's employment back to pre-pandemic levels. Globally, female employment is unlikely to return to pre-COVID-19 levels before 2022, while male employment is projected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels by the end of 2021, according to the ILO. Considering this significant gap, it is important to establish mechanisms for women's re-entry into employment as early as possible

Societal acceptance of flexible jobs

Before the pandemic hit, there was low societal acceptance of men working in non-standard work arrangements, which made it more likely that women would end up in such arrangements. However, since 2019 a lot has changed in this respect: working from home and more flexible working schedules have become not only a highly attractive way of working that enhances flexibility for all employees, but also a widely accepted working arrangement.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 6% of women and 5% of men regularly worked remotely in the European Union. Today, the difference is narrower with approximately 16% of all workers working from home at least some of the time.

Job flexibility enjoyed by everyone may help both men and women fulfil their familial duties and remain active in the labor market at the same time.

Working remotely should keep more women in the labor market

Non-profit organization Catalyst found that women with childcare responsibilities are 32% less likely to report that they intend to leave their job if they have access to remote work compared to women with childcare responsibilities who do not have access to remote work. This suggests that long-term remote work arrangements beyond the COVID-19 crisis may be a powerful way to retain more women in the workforce over their lifetimes, improve continuity in their incomes, and allow them to increase their savings and retirement contributions.

Women with childcare responsibilities are 32% less likely to report that they intend to leave their job if they have access to remote work.

Equal employment rights mean gender equality in the workplace

We believe the pandemic has offered an opportunity to tackle entrenched social norms by enabling both men and women to work from home and thus they can share their overall responsibilities more equally. The signals this sends to the next generation are important. Such social change is more likely to unfold in countries where both men and women have equal access to flexible work. We believe employers should embrace flexible work arrangements generally and destigmatize flexible work arrangements for men. Only when such arrangements are offered to all people can women truly benefit.