Posted by Kate Jelly

How the private sector can #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and inequality

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed and exacerbated existing fault lines in the labour market (as well as in society more broadly) – with gender one of the most significant factors. While women comprise the majority of the ‘essential’ workforce – including 70 percent of healthcare workers, they have been disproportionately affected by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Women’s job losses related to COVID-19 are nearly two times that of men, and in some contexts much higher. In the US, for example, after netting out, women accounted for all the 140,000 jobs lost in December 2020. A key reason for the unequal distribution of job losses among women and men is that globally, the increased care burden due to the loss of care options and school closures has fallen overwhelmingly on women. Surveys conducted by IFC have shown that many employers have been unsure how best to support employees working remotely, and that a lack of care options has been a key driver for women dropping out of the labour force. In the UK, a survey carried out by the TUC in January 2021 found that nearly three-quarters of working mothers who applied to their employers for furlough following the latest school closures had their requests denied.

Exacerbating vulnerability in global supply chains

Women have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s disruption to global supply chains – in particular in the garment industry in which nearly one quarter of the approximately 190 million women working in all global supply chains are engaged. Some international brands have come under fire for passing the economic shock of COVID-19 onto their suppliers by cancelling orders or refusing to pay for raw materials purchased by suppliers. As a result, many factories across the Global South have had to suspend operations or fire or furlough workers. Given the make-up of the sector’s workforce, women have borne the brunt of such actions on the part of global retailers. In Bangladesh, for instance, where the garment sector accounts for around 80 percent of international exports, six times more women than men have been laid off across the economy due to the recession sparked by the pandemic.

Increasing risk of gender-based violence

As well as intensifying the economic vulnerability of an already precarious group of workers, the shuttering of workplaces has presented additional barriers to women accessing sexual and reproductive health services and increased the risk of gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) – the latter in particular a worrying trend that has been observed worldwide. It has been estimated that on average, incidence of GBVH has risen 20 percent in countries affected by COVID-19, due to stay-at-home orders and restrictions on movement, intensified by a climate of economic insecurity. In some countries, the figure is much higher – in Tunisia and Fiji for example, emergency calls related to domestic violence have increased by around 400 percent since lockdowns began, according to UN Women.

How can the private sector #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and inequality in 2021 – and beyond?

Addressing the unequal impact of the pandemic presents a daunting task. Yet it also provides an opportunity for companies to contribute to global efforts to “build back better” for all – both by mitigating the disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic on women and by addressing the pre-existing inequalities in the labour market that the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare. Here are just some of the ways in which the private sector can #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and inequality – during the pandemic, the recovery phase and beyond.

  • Consider individual circumstances. Employers can best support their workforce by recognising the diversity of employees’ experiences, taking time to understand individual challenges – as well as the impact of gender (and other characteristics) – and devising responses accordingly. For example, while a permanent move to homeworking may be welcomed by employees balancing work with child or elder care, the option of returning to the office could be a lifeline for someone confined in an abusive domestic situation.
  • Embrace flexibility. The pandemic has forced a reset in how we think about the world of work, with employers realising that working from home does not mean lower levels of productivity. For their part, employees who have adopted home working or been granted more flexibility in their hours may be reluctant to return to “business as usual”. In this context, forward-thinking employers are starting to recognise the benefits a more flexible working model can bring in the longer term – at least in the sectors where this is feasible.
  • Support male and female carers. According to an IFC study, companies that have provided access to affordable childcare have seen benefits – such as better retention of employees and higher productivity. Moreover, by offering childcare support to both men and women, employers can #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and inequality by tackling some of the stereotypes and social norms that mean women continue to take on the overwhelming responsibility for care. As noted in previous studies Ergon has carried out on behalf of clients such as IFC, care options range from the resource-intensive, establishing an on-site childcare facility for example, to options that require much less investment, such as additional annual leave.
  • Emphasise support – from recruitment throughout the employment relationship. Given the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women’s employment, women are likely to constitute a significant bloc of jobseekers in the coming months and years. Companies can encourage women to apply for vacancies by ensuring that job advertisements highlight their commitment to equal opportunity and relevant supports, such as flexible working policies. Other good practice includes clearly communicating to employees that they will not be penalised in terms of pay or career progression for taking time off during the pandemic or working flexibly.
  • Reinforce and adapt existing policies and measures to safeguard against GBVH. Employers have a responsibility to prevent and mitigate risks of GBVH in the workplace, and are well-positioned to support those who are at risk of IPV – as explained in a dedicated blog post on the subject by Ergon’s Anya Marcelis.
  • Look beyond direct operations. Multinational enterprises face growing pressure from civil society, consumers and investors, as well as increasing legal obligations, to undertake due diligence on labour and social issues beyond their immediate operations and first-tier suppliers. COVID-19 has provided a new impetus for this task. Such assessments should explicitly consider the impacts of the pandemic through supply chains and the impact of corporate actions on those already at the sharp end of global trade systems – mostly women.

In the wake of COVID-19, companies have a responsibility to #ChoosetoChallenge gender bias and inequality by taking substantive steps to improve all areas of the world of work for women. Even in “normal” times, investing in women’s employment is good for business. The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women means that now, more than ever, doing so is critical.

Further resources

There is a wealth of further information on some of the issues outlined above, developed by Ergon, our clients and many others. The list below is just a starting point.

Materials developed by or contributed to by Ergon

Other resources