Why this International Women’s Day is more important than ever

I can vividly remember the day Milwaukee, the city I call home, shut down seemingly overnight last March. I had just returned from a trip to New York, meeting with colleagues–little did I know that would be our last physical meeting together. At the time, we faced a myriad of unknowns–scientific, social, financial. Our image of the world, once clear, became blurry as we faced fears for ourselves and our loved ones.

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A year into this pandemic, we’re beginning to see the ways in which people have not only been impacted but impacted differently and disproportionately.

Author Chris Klunk

A joint study by Accenture and W20, part of G20, estimated that the unequal impact of the pandemic on women has pushed the timeline back for gender equality by as many as 51 years–meaning this milestone may not be achieved until 2171, if proactive measures are not taken quickly.

Another analysis suggests the progress toward gender equity in the workforce has been derailed by more than three decades to the levels of labor force participation last seen in 1988.

This International Women’s Day, the best way to honor women is to take action moving forward to ensure that women emerge from the COVID-19 crisis as equal partners and key economic participants.

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‘I knew if something was going to break, it would be me.’

Having co-parented three daughters–who fuel my passion for equality for all, I have a deep appreciation for the joy and challenges of raising children while working full-time. But, no one could have prepared for this past year.

Women have long borne a disproportionate responsibility of household work and childcare. Our study found that the global health crisis has only exacerbated it.

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Many parents have lost reliable access to daycare and schools for their children, causing many to leave or lose their jobs. For those who remain employed, childcare is a substantial issue as parents struggle to be full-time teachers for their distance-learning children, while also trying to be productive workers.

Immediately following the onset of the pandemic, we expanded our back-up dependent care and crisis care benefits. Last fall, we launched a new initiative for the back-to-school season with childcare operator Bright Horizons to provide school-day supervision for children ages 6-12 through a network of 1,800 learning centers nationwide. The aim is that working parents can get some much-needed relief and more ease of mind.

One of our people, Houston-based Courtney Pfleger, spoke of her experience shared by many: “Juggling home-schooling, household duties and a new job during a pandemic was beyond stressful. As time went on, I knew if something was going to break, it would be me. Accenture’s help has saved my sanity.” She says her 6-year-old son’s reading skills have improved exponentially during the pandemic due to a virtual tutor program we began offering. “The small bits of relief add up to big reductions in your stress bubble.”

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

Feedback like this lifted me and helped me know we were focused on the things that mattered to our people.

To address challenges often faced by parents returning to employment after a hiatus, we are also working with The Mom Project–a digital community whose mission is to help women remain active in the workforce. Through our two-year partnership, we’re hiring 150 people–women and men–for positions in Accenture’s U.S. Midwest division, while offering targeted support and training for working parents and those rejoining corporate America so they can be positioned for long-term success in their careers.

An opportunity to diminish barriers

Another critical area of focus for organizations is to review and update workplace policies to reduce unconscious bias–not to mention discrimination and harassment–and promote a culture of equality for all people.

Unfortunately, our study found that while 46% of U.S. women felt included in their organizations before the pandemic, the number dropped to 40% since the rise of COVID-19. Men are more likely to work in higher-paying industries than women, and when women join these sectors, they are often offered lower wages or fewer opportunities for advancement. The UN reports that this contributes to a gender pay gap of 23%, meaning women on average earn 77% of what their male counterparts do.

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Companies must act by framing the case for diversity as a business priority. Bold targets for bolstering the presence of women at all levels should be publicly set, and progress should be measured and reported regularly.

For example, we set goals to achieve a gender-balanced workforce and increase the percentage of female managing directors to 30% by 2025, and we report our progress to hold ourselves accountable. We are also a member of The Employers for Pay Equity consortium, a group of companies that understands the importance of ensuring that all individuals are compensated equitably for equal work and experience and have an equal opportunity to contribute and advance in the workplace. We strive to make sure compensation is fair and equitable for everyone from the moment they are hired through the milestones of their careers. When we see a disparity, we fix it.

Addressing digital inclusion

“Shelter-in-place” measures have made people, especially women, more reliant on digital services than ever before. In fact, the percentage of women who say they are reliant on the internet for their personal life has climbed by 34% globally since the pandemic started, while the proportion who depend on the internet to work from home surged by 52%.

Despite the increased use of digital technologies, not enough women play an active role in developing them. In fact, the World Economic Forum reports that only 12% of jobs in cloud computing are held by women, while a report by Accenture and Girls Who Code found half of women in technology roles leave them by the age of 35.

As leaders, we have to do more to make sure women have a seat at the table when it comes to developing new technologies so the solutions can be more inclusive by design. We must also increase women’s access to technology worldwide by investing in infrastructure, high-speed connectivity and training to improve skills.

For Accenture, our professional apprenticeship program has been a great way to source historically underrepresented talent in the corporate world, including women, and create new career pathways for people of diverse backgrounds to participate in the digital economy. It’s also been a true joy to work with such motivated and talented people through this program.

A path forward

What I know for sure is that, as we stand here today, we have both a responsibility to act and a chance to influence the future of women. As leaders, we are in a unique position to take actions to help women thrive not only in the workplace but also in other parts of their lives–which, in turn, helps our organizations excel.

I believe it is our job as leaders to help make things better than we found them–and this is our greatest opportunity.

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Chris Klunk
Chris Klunk is chief human resources officer—North America, Accenture. She is responsible for helping 60,000 U.S. and Canada employees be their best personally and professionally.