Why we need to make sure the ‘shecession’ doesn’t damage advances in gender equality

Dr Lynn Farrell is a Research Fellow on the ‘Inclusion Really Does Matter’ project at Queen’s University Belfast, set up in 2019, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, to accelerate progress towards gender equality. Dr Farrell and her colleague Dr Ioana Latu, Programme Director of the ‘Inclusion Really Does Matter’ project in the School of Psychology at Queen’s, say it’s vital that the pandemic does not set back progress towards gender equality in the workplace.
 
When we observe women’s overrepresentation in low-wage work and underrepresentation as CEOs we can see that workplace equality remains an unfinished endeavour. There is evidence that as careers become female-dominated they are lower-paid.  Furthermore, gender and racial bias intersect to compound barriers to equality for women of colour - an issue not often adequately addressed by equality initiatives, meaning they may benefit white women more. These are just some of the pervasive ways that workplace gender inequalities continue to exist.
 
The COVID-19 pandemic has made these gender disparities even more salient with evidence accumulating of a ‘shecession’ - a term used by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in a recent report. Caring responsibilities and women’s employment industry contribute significantly here. Women typically complete the majority of housework and caregiving in addition to their paid work – constituting a second shift.
 
Owing to the pandemic, women’s domestic responsibilities have increased, and their employment is almost twice as likely to be lost. Mothers, for example, have had to reduce their paid work hours more than fathers to meet their increased domestic demands.  
 
There are many reasons why it is important to ensure the pandemic does not push back women’s workplace gains. Reports by McKinsey & Company show that advancing workplace gender equality would add $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030 and that more diverse companies perform better financially. Additionally, diverse perspectives can enhance innovation. However, these merit debates should be obsolete - gender equality is a human right. Therefore, our energies would be better spent generating innovative and systemic solutions to finally achieve equality.
 
Numerous approaches show promise such as mentoring and sponsorship, management support, training for search committees, and increasing self-efficacy to address gender bias. Reducing stereotypes and rigid gender roles are important components. However, any gender equality initiatives implemented should be empirically supported to ensure they don’t generate backlash. They should also consider gender alongside other social identities such as race and ethnicity to ensure all women benefit.
 
Additionally, we need gender-aware policies that recognise and value unpaid, domestic work. Employers should take the lessons learned during the pandemic around flexible working arrangements, for example, and utilise them as inclusively as possible. To encourage widespread employee buy-in for these equality actions our research at the Inclusion Really Does Matter project suggests that promoting their intrinsic value and framing them as beneficial for all may help.
 
Ultimately, gathering data on the workplace challenges women of diverse backgrounds face and identifying effective interventions will be crucial, as gender equality is unlikely to be reached without help. However, by focusing on cultivating supportive environments and implementing effective actions, workplace equality is possible.