Women in the workplace and impact of Covid-19

Women have assumed additional responsibilities such as taking on more household and childcare while continuing to work due to Covid-19.

Image by Brian Wangenheim

According to the Deloitte’s Women @ Work report, the global pandemic saw 114 million jobs lost worldwide, with women accounting for a higher percentage compared to men.

The survey looked at aspects of women’s working lives, including their experiences during the pandemic and career expectations for the future.

Last year (2020), South Africa recorded the highest unemployment rate since 2008, says Dudu Msomi, chief executive at Busara Leadership Partners.

Msomi points to the PwC Women in Work Index, which reveals that Covid-19 is reversing the important gains made over the last decade for women in the workforce.

“The report has called attention to a ‘shecession’,  as most women lost their jobs because of the pandemic. The lockdown regulations to curb the spread of Covid-19 infections turned homes into working spaces for those employees who were still employed, educational space for school-going children and students, and home-based care for the sick and the elderly.”

Family members such as grandparents, neighbours and friends were unable to assist with looking after children. “The pandemic disproportionately affected women and their employment opportunities because their additional caring responsibilities reduced work productivity and thus their career progression.”

Dudu Msomi

Of the women surveyed by Deloitte, 77% reported increases in workload as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, they are also spending more time on household tasks and looking after children and loved ones than before the pandemic, and the data suggests that women are taking on a larger share of this than other household members.

Deloitte also notes that women reported feeling unable to ‘switch off’ from work, with more than half saying that this is driven by the fear that doing so will affect their career progression.

Other women worry about being excluded from important projects, whereas some say that being unavailable to their employer will force them to make a decision between their working and personal lives.

Moreover, Deloitte reveals that women’s wellbeing has dropped since the pandemic, with some saying that poor mental health is affecting their career progress.

“The mental health ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic are likely to have a lasting impact on many South Africans, including women in managerial and leadership positions. Leaders across the spectrum should be concerned about the anxieties, fears, and possible depression of their employees. But who ensures their well-being?” points out Msomi.

Unemployment in South Africa

In South Africa, the official unemployment rate was 32.6% in the first quarter of 2021, according to Stats SA.

The sectors that were most affected and experienced job losses were the trade industry, business services industry and community, social and personal services including domestic workers, which have a high proportion of women, notes Msomi.

Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) lecturer, Dr Michele Ruiters, says women are mostly employed in sectors that are very vulnerable to financial and other crises.

These include tourism and hospitality, beauty and hair, call centres and retail sectors. Nice-to-have expenses such as holidays, restaurant meals, beauty and hair are the first to be cut when households or individuals are financially constrained.

Image by Keren Levand

“The feminisation of jobs in certain vulnerable sectors makes women more at risk than men. If we employ people because of their skills and not for their gender, and pay them an equitable wage, women will not be on the harsh receiving end of economic and social crises,” says Dr Ruiters.

Jacki McEwen-Powell, founding partner and strategist at Eclipse Communications says her experience on job losses is primarily related to her own staff and the communications industry.

“I certainly believe that it has been a tough time for the media industry and particularly journalists and agencies. Given that the industry has a higher proportion of women than men, it is likely that a greater percentage of any losses would be women,” states McEwen-Powell.

Many senior positions/decision makers in the agency environment are dominated by women. Therefore, they face the same challenges as their male counterparts in other industries when forced to make job cuts.

Challenges in the workplace

Women make up at least 40% of the workforce in most countries, and more than 50% in the United States and the European Union, reveals Deloitte.

McEwen-Powell points out that the demands of work and family life, and not being forced to give up one at the expense of the other, remain a challenge.

Jacki McEwen-Powell

“Many women in the industry (media and agencies) are mothers, or want to be in the future. Employers need to be flexible and supportive, thus enabling female employees to focus their time on both their career and family life. At the same time, their performance in the workplace should be based on the quality of work rather than time spent at the office.”

Having begun her own business 23 years ago, and having a child within the first year of the business, McEwen-Powell relates to these challenges.

For many women who study at GIBS, they identify workplace culture as their biggest hurdle.

Dr Ruiters explains that workplace policies ensure gender equality, however, the gendered culture of businesses and institutions celebrate men and the work they do and minimise the work women do.

“Companies need to be clear about their values and how the enactment of those values are rewarded. If they reward the hardest worker in terms of hours spent and deals landed, men will always win because their hours are not divided by care-work demands. We need values, ethics, integrity and impact to be the measurement of success, and reward those. That will begin to level the gendered playing field in our institutions.”

The Deloitte Global survey indicates that 52% of women have experienced some form of harassment or non-inclusive behaviour at work in the past year. These range from unwanted physical contact, disparaging remarks about their gender and unwanted comments of a sexual nature, to comments about their physical appearance, gender, race, sexual orientation or gender identity and care-giving status.

However, women are stepping up to the challenges of a Covid-19 world and are juggling numerous roles. South Africa is a relatively conservative country at home and at work, notes Dr Ruiters.

“Gender equality in all aspects of our lives is long overdue. Taking a cue from the UN Women’s tagline: #GenerationEquality: this is our time to make gender equality a reality.”

Women have feelings of obligation and commitment to others, at most times to their own detriment. Sheryl Sandberg, the author of the book: Lean In said: “Give us a world where half our homes are run by men, and half our institutions are run by women. I’m pretty sure that would be a better world.”

“Women must realise that no one is going to give them that world. They need to create and demand that world. They must acknowledge that they cannot do everything and be all things to everyone,” points out Msomi.

Instead of doing it all, women need to ask for help to reduce their workload even when they believe they do things better than their partners in the household. However, single mothers have a massive challenge of not having an in-house support structure, hence it’s challenging for them to have any semblance of work-life balance.

Image by Brian Wangenheim

Msomi believes another solution could be adopting the Nordic Region practices where there is shared participation in childcare. This results in a more equitable distribution of work at home and a better work-life balance for both women and men.

Pay gap still widening

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the pandemic has set gender parity efforts back by a generation or more. “If business leaders do not move to proactively address gender inequality in the workplace, they are likely to lose some of their best people. They may also struggle to recruit younger talent who choose employers who demonstrate a truly inclusive culture,” according to WEF.

“In 2020, women globally earned 81 cents for every dollar earned by men, and the pay gaps were already there before the pandemic,” states Deloitte.

“Salary inequality and unfair gender discrimination are still prevalent in workplaces,” points out Msomi. “However, since salaries are usually confidential, it is challenging to prove that men are paid more in environments that are not transparent.”

Msomi notes that the Employment Equity Amendment Act 1 came into force on 1 August 2014 and amended the Employment Equity Act 2 inter alia by the introduction of sections 6(4) and 6(5). Section 6(4) provides that a difference in terms and conditions of employment between employees of the same employer performing the same or substantially the same work or work of equal value that is directly or indirectly based on any one or more of specific grounds is unfair discrimination.

Section 6(5) empowers the Minister of Labour, after consultation with the Commission for Employment Equity to prescribe the criteria and the methodology for assessing work of equal value.

The Department of Labour’s Code of Good Practice provides that where a difference between remuneration exists, the difference may be justified and therefore fair, based on the individuals. 

Bradley Workman-Davies, director at Werksmans Attorneys says differences are fair and just, if based on:

  • Ability
  • Competence or potential above the minimum acceptable levels required for the performance of the job
  • Quantity or quality of work
  • Respective seniority or length of service
  • The respective qualifications       
  • The individuals’ respective performance.

Education and career advancement

“I believe the job market has become even tougher today, with many more candidates looking to fill less available jobs,” states McEwen-Powell.

Dr Michele Ruiters

She reckons that there should be greater investment in education and up-skilling or re-skilling of people, in line with the changing face of the job market and new technologies. Employers and government both have a role in creating jobs for current and future generations.

The Deloitte report shows that providing better learning opportunities and more interesting projects are cited as the two things that companies can do to support women’s development and ensure that they stay.

“Women want meaningful opportunities to develop and build skills. They see these as both beneficial to improving gender equality overall, and as a critical element for their retention,” according to Deloitte.

In South Africa, companies select women to attend leadership courses at institutions such as GIBS, in order to develop their skills and capabilities.

“These women are high performers in the companies they work for, or they show potential to become leaders in the company in the future,” says Dr Ruiters.

Dr Ruiters explains that the leadership courses are designed to enhance and focus on the potential they already have. “If companies follow through on their initial promise to the women in leadership by appointing them to more senior positions, then we have succeeded.”

To her knowledge, generally GIBS does not follow up on the impact of its courses. However, many speakers on the women’s leadership programmes (women as leaders and leading women) have had some affiliation with GIBS in the past. As a result, she says that the courses have been successful.

For Msomi, organisations should prioritise discussions on providing leadership opportunities and eliminating barriers to advance women and to influence their retention.

“Within corporates, under-representation of women in top management positions continues to be a focus. Although a few women have succeeded in breaking the glass (white) and concrete (black) ceilings, there are still a very small number of women in higher ranks than they are in lower levels of organisations,” notes Msomi.

According to Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa 2017 census, in a country where women comprise 51% of the population, only 20.7% of directors and 29.4% of executive managers are women.

Furthermore, at top leadership level, the number is significantly lower, with women holding only 11.8% of chairperson positions.

Msomi believes that progressive workplaces equip women with the necessary tools and skills to gain confidence and prepare them for promotion opportunities when they become available.

To this end, business schools, consultancies and training providers are constantly developing and offer leadership development programmes for women.

Inclusivity in the workplace

As forward-thinking players in this space, Busara Leadership Partners believes in developing specific leadership programmes for both men and women. Msomi says by doing so, employees are adequately equipped for the workplace and the dynamic global challenges.

Image by Christina Wocintechchat

It is through engaging difficult, but enriching conversation, working as collaborators and facilitating personal leadership through complexities and real-world experiences that helps employees in the workplace.

“As a diversity and inclusion strategist, I design workshops to facilitate the transformation of work environments from entry level to the boardroom. These seek and embrace diversity, as well as foster inclusive cultures within the workplace.”

Msomi also gives talks on how to navigate workplace bias and corporate politics. “Diversity and inclusion initiatives must be led and championed by the leadership of every organisation to be sustainable. Therefore, getting the buy-in and support of leaders, both male and female, enhances women participation and inclusivity in leadership positions.”

Dr Ruiters believes organisations have motivational systems that reward the ‘ideal worker’ who happens to be male and can work extended hours without having to make care-work arrangements.

“Flexible hours would improve women’s participation significantly. If we are serious about including women as workers, business owners and consumers, we need to be very aware of how workplaces are gendered.”

According Dr Ruiters, workplaces are becoming more diverse, and yet, policies do not always keep pace with the changes.

For example, women returning to work after maternity leave, often lack breastfeeding facilities, and prayer facilities are not available for Muslim colleagues. Additionally, paternity leave is too short, placing too much emphasis on the role of the mother as the main caregiver in families, notes Dr Ruiters.

Companies such as Eclipse Communications have initiatives in place, to enhance women participation and inclusivity, as well as their professional development.

“We have a share ownership scheme for the majority of our staff (this will soon extend to all employees). Currently, more than 35% black females are shareholders in the business,” says McEwen-Powell.

Further, Eclipse Communications has a ‘Freedom and Responsibility’ policy. This policy gives all employees the freedom to manage the demands of their career challenges and family life balance in a flexible working environment.

Additionally, the company has an internship and mentorship programme designed to develop young talent into future leaders.

“Due to this approach, more than 80% of the management positions in the company are held by women,” adds McEwen-Powell.

Read also

How COVID-19 has upended our world

How Protests Impacted Nurse Lee Anderson-Brooks

Edited by Gudrun Kaiser

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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