Sage-Gavin: Workplace equality is at risk. HR leaders can turn the tide.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, we must recognize the negative impact the pandemic has had on workplace equality. In my previous column, I touched on opportunities in the post-pandemic world. But there are challenges too, and unless these are tackled with creative and practical solutions, women will be left behind.

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The pandemic and the “she-cession”

In the U.S., the percentage of women in the workforce is at its lowest levels since 1988, with 4,637,000 payroll jobs lost by women nationwide since the start of the pandemic. In some industries, the impact is even worse. In the U.S. technology sector, for example, the percentage of women workers is lower than at any time since 1984! Globally, women’s employment losses have been higher than for men throughout the crisis: 5% versus 3.9%.

Where women have managed to stay in the workforce, the situation is hardly better. A U.K. study found that women are 43% more likely than men to increase their working hours beyond a standard workweek. Eighty-six percent of women who are working and handling childcare report that their mental health has suffered.

While all women are being impacted by the pandemic, some are feeling the effects more than others. Women of color are particularly hard hit. Forty-eight percent of black mothers say the pandemic has impacted their ability to pay for basic necessities.

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Embedded inequality

Why are women disproportionately affected by the pandemic?

First, women account for the majority of unpaid care work, such as childcare and the support of elderly relatives. This disparity has been called out as a manifestation of gender inequality, and the pandemic has made it worse. With schools, daycare and other support services closed during lockdowns, it’s mostly women who have left the workforce, or reduced their hours to care for others.

Second, women form a disproportionately high share of the workforce in industries most disrupted by the pandemic. The hospitality, retail and food service industries have been heavily impacted and have strong representation of women in their workforce. A hospitality industry report suggests that globally women make up nearly 70% of the hospitality workforce.

Women, including women of color, also account for a larger share of low-income roles, which have also been hit hard by the pandemic. Unemployment rates for Latinas are 9.1%, black women 8.4% and white women 5.7%.

Related: How HR can be the ‘catalyst for change’ on DEI

A critical inflection point

Throughout my career, I have sought to champion workplace equality and help companies accelerate the gender parity journey. Unless action is taken now, we risk seeing progress erased. One assessment suggests that the overall global gender gap could close in 99.5 years. However, the model also indicates that if progress continues at the same slow pace experienced from 2006-2020, then it will take 257 years for the gap to close.

We must get to parity faster. Fortunately, there’s hope we can and will do better–after all, we did just elect a woman of color as vice president of the United States.

Another reason to be hopeful is that gender equality not only represents responsible business practices, it’s also economically the right thing to do. Bringing women back into the workforce as quickly as possible can boost business. Economists at S&P Global believe that increasing women’s participation in the U.S. workforce will add 5%-10% to nominal GDP in a few decades. The research suggests that female participation in the workforce on Norway’s level would make the U.S. economy $1.6 trillion larger than it is today.

Leapfrog to better

Women must be brought back to work and brought back in the right way. What’s required is a shift in thinking: leapfrogging from “good enough” to “equal always.” Let’s not return to how things were; let’s do better by ensuring equity and guaranteeing that women get the jobs and pay they deserve.

For this to happen, we as leaders will need to work creatively on practical solutions. And many of these solutions will begin with balanced representation at the top, including in board director and senior management roles.

New initiatives are emerging with practical solutions to increase board director candidate visibility, such as Santa Clara University’s Black Corporate Board Readiness program, for which I am proud to serve as a mentor. The program provides a pathway to help women of color gain board seats, and in this inaugural year, a cohort of 28 talented diverse professionals will take part. The initiative follows the University’s Women’s Corporate Board Readiness program, which has helped increase female board director candidate pools.

See also: How culture can empower the next generation of female leaders

Leaders, especially chief human resource officers, can lead the way on gender equity. I believe three things can equip CHROs to creatively drive change:

  1. Think without limits. Consider a candidate’s full skillset and life experiences, using new AI technology like SkyHive, which analyzes an individual’s top skills and helps match them to new opportunities. SkyHive supports economic empowerment for six under-represented groups, including women and indigenous peoples, and helps to provide insights and pathways to new, future-ready roles. The company’s competency-based methodology allows individuals to be placed in roles independent of education, credential, ethnicity or gender factors and seeks to eliminate bias in the employment and advancement processes.
  2. Pay according to worth. It’s sad to say that in 2021 this point still needs to be made, but it does: pay women what they are worth. In the U.S., March 24 is Equal Pay Day, and this date symbolizes how far into a new year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year. The pandemic has forced women out of the workforce to 1980s representation levels; as we bring them back, let’s tackle pay inequality and deliver pay parity once and for all.
  3. Care to do better. The pandemic has demonstrated that working from home and flexible hours is delivering continuity for businesses. We have innovated and learned that we can do things differently, quickly. As we welcome women back to work, let’s do so using an agile approach that allows women–and all genders–to balance work with other commitments. As I’ve discussed previously, by looking at workers holistically and aiming to make them net better off as individuals, businesses unlock their full potential and grow faster as a result. But net better off can’t happen as long as workplace inequality exists.

We wouldn’t accept business productivity measures plummeting to 1988 levels, and nor should we accept female workforce participation doing the same. Today, CHROs and business leaders can deliver positive change for all women in the workforce.

We don’t have to accept “good enough” in a post-pandemic recovery; let’s leapfrog to “equal always” for women and workers everywhere. And let’s celebrate the contributions of women, not only in March, but every day!

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected].