As countries around the world put their post-Covid recovery plans into action, we are asking whether women’s needs are fully considered. Millions of women lost their job or left the workforce to navigate challenges at home during the pandemic, and many have not yet returned. The barriers women face to achieving career success are now greater than they were before, putting them further behind from leading a truly self-determined life.

Nearly a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, we wrote an article that discussed the ways in which women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Many mothers had to put their careers on hold to manage home schooling while others battled through higher levels of stress to balance work with home and childcare responsibilities. Women were also more likely to lose their job as a result of the pandemic, as they held a higher proportion of roles in sectors that experienced the first job cuts.

Now, two years on from the onset of the pandemic, we are asking whether gender equality in the workplace has recovered. Economies around the world are either enjoying a quick recovery or are poised for one in the coming months, but are women enjoying an equal share in the opportunities an economic rebound brings? Our findings suggest that women continue to experience setbacks in their career and will do so for some time yet without additional support or opportunities.

Workplace gender equality in numbers

The pandemic forced many women to reconsider their careers. While some lost their jobs or were put on furlough schemes, others made the decision to leave the workforce to manage childcare and home-schooling responsibilities. Figures from the UN reveal that in 2020, the number of employed women declined by 54 million, while 45 million women left the workforce. While it seems as though women have chosen to end their careers, the reality is that they have been left with little choice due to the surmounting pressures.

There are positive signs that women’s representation in the workforce may now be recovering. In countries including Spain, France, Italy, the US, Canada, Australia and South Korea, the female employment rate has now surpassed that of the male rate. The total number of working hours has also been higher for women in the Eurozone and the wider European Union.

However, women in other countries are facing a somewhat different experience. Estimates were that global female employment in 2021 was set to be 13 million lower than it was in 2019. Male employment, meanwhile, was on course to surpass pre-pandemic levels.

More work is clearly needed to readdress gender imbalances around the world and ensure women can enjoy a self-determined life where career choice is in their hands.

Barriers affecting women’s employment

Despite economies around the world switching back on, women are finding it difficult to return to work with confidence. The high proportion of women who worked in sectors that struggled during the pandemic now need to reskill to re-enter the workforce. Given the need to develop their skills, they may have to enter a new career at an entry-level position. Those who lost their job during the pandemic now also face dwindling government support. On the surface, these financial pressures would appear to encourage women to return to work, but in reality, women now have less bargaining power when it comes to things like salary.

Of the 45 million women who left the workforce, those who do want to return to their former career may also find it more difficult to do so. In some sectors, businesses have changed so much during Covid-19 that women may need to develop new skills before returning. This could empower women who are keen to boost their skills and take their career to the next level, but for this to be reality, it is vital that there is suitable training and funding to give women this opportunity.

Increasing barriers to promotion

Even before the pandemic, women around the world were underrepresented at senior levels in companies, accounting for just 28% of managerial positions in 2019. Now, as countries emerge from the pandemic, women face an even steeper uphill battle to achieve the promotions they have been working towards.

UN research reveals that women with children at home spend on average 31 hours a week on childcare, which is five hours more than before the pandemic took hold. As Covid-19 infection levels remain high and new variants appear, schools and nurseries are regularly closing, which is putting more childcare pressure on women. Some women may also be experiencing a shift in responsibilities at home. Either way, more hours spent on childcare means less time to take on additional tasks at work.

Surveys also report that women feel more burned out than men, which will no doubt prevent them from applying for and achieving promotions. In fact, one in three women say they have considered downshifting their career in 2021, which is a higher proportion than those who said the same a few months into the pandemic.

Although we believe everyone should be able to choose when to take a step back from their career, the decision is not a free one if it is forced by stress or burnout. That is why support is vital to ensure that women can achieve their career goals in a sustainable way.

Supporting women beyond the pandemic

While government schemes supported women during the pandemic, many have now been left with fewer job opportunities and rising childcare costs to bear. Employers should play a role in helping women to return to work and achieve their career goals with confidence. Interestingly, women in senior roles are working hard to address the barriers that women continue to face. According to McKinsey, senior-level women are twice as likely as senior-level men to dedicate time to diversity, equality and inclusion tasks at least twice weekly.

The kind of support that helps women to succeed in the workplace includes ensuring workloads are manageable, flexibility for juggling responsibilities at home, recruiting employees from underrepresented groups, and upskilling programmes to help women evolve at pace with the sector. Women should be able to choose how they forge their career, but women are only truly free to make this choice if they are not forced to compromise on their own or their family’s wellbeing.

Keeping women’s needs front and centre

Now that countries around the world adapt to the challenges that Covid-19 presents, it is crucial that women’s needs are part of the conversation. Unless policies, both at a public and workplace level, provide security and opportunities for women, it will be impossible for them to focus on their career and lead a self-determined life with confidence.

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