At first thought, pay equity and pandemics may seem like two unrelated topics, but the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 outbreak, the employment landscape is changing rapidly – and women may face the brunt of the fallout.
While the World Economic Forum (WEF) tells us that research from China suggests the virus is infecting men and women in about equal numbers, an increasing number of women are on the front lines. In the Chinese province of Hubei, WEF reports that more than half of the doctors and 90% of the nurses are women. In the United States, women hold 76% of health-care jobs, making up more than 85% of the nursing workforce. And that’s just the beginning.
Women account for 70% of the health- and social-care sector in the 104 countries analyzed by the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition to workplace presence, more than 75% of women are also primary caregivers, spending as much as 50% more time caring for family members than men. As schools shut down and child-care centers close, this care burden often falls to women, with babysitters in short supply and social distancing being today’s best line of defense against infection.
For others, there’s the concern of sustained employment, with women making up large numbers of the hourly workforce in many countries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of American women reliant on part-time and hourly work surpasses that of men, making the closing of retail stores, restaurants, hospitality, hair and nail salons all the more damaging to this population. Data from Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency indicate that women comprise the majority of workers in that country’s food service, arts and recreation and retail trade industries, representing more lost wages than men.
Women are overrepresented in industries dealing with the outbreak firsthand, where there is no opportunity to take time off right now. At the same time, women are also overrepresented in industries reliant on casual workers. These are jobs where there isn’t always access to paid sick leave, where closures leave them without any income and where the effects of a COVID-19-induced economic slump would be all the more devastating.
Amid everything else going on, sits the issue of pay equity. As recently as August 2019, the Pew Research Center found that on average American women earn 85 cents on the dollar compared with men. Pew writes that several factors contribute to the persistence of the gender wage gap, including “the broader impact of family caregiving responsibilities, differences in the industries and occupations in which women and men work … and differences in workforce experience.”
During a pandemic, these are also the factors that have women caring for others or wondering how to pay their bills. These are women facing the unknown day in and day out, without equal pay for increasingly dangerous labor. These are women who face the stress of not having anything guaranteed, not knowing if they’ll have a job once the pandemic subsides. So, really, pay equity has everything to do with how the world works, in the good times and the uncertain ones.
Until recently, one of the main drivers behind the gender wage gap was a lack of flexible working options, forcing many to choose between career ambitions and caring responsibilities. In the wake of the pandemic, new practices, including remote work, may ultimately enhance gender equality in the workplace.
After years of stubbornly refusing, some employers have no choice but to allow workers to work from home in line with government directives. Even so, The Atlantic points out that only 29% of Americans can work from home, including one in 20 service workers and more than half of information workers. Those who now can work from home wonder why they didn’t before, while others still are facing the economic hardship that comes from reduced hours or, in many cases, full unemployment. While flexibility may be coming soon, it’s not here yet, and “a pandemic is not an appropriate time to determine what kind of labor arrangement is optimally productive on a per-worker basis,” wrote The Atlantic.
This is only the beginning. When and how the world emerges from this crisis is unknown, and which businesses will survive is unsure. Many companies, and workers, will have to reinvent themselves. Particularly women, though everyone is likely to be impacted. And how work evolves may irrevocably change gender equality in the process.
About the Author
Ruth Thomas is the co-founder of CURO Compensation.