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Workplaces need to stop pushing women out – how the pandemic can teach us to do better

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes Unperfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

By Danielle Marie Bennun, People and Culture Partner at Permutive

The past year has been rough for everyone, but it’s been harder on women. In just 12 months the estimated time to reach worldwide gender equality has increased from 99.5 years to 135.6, setting us back a total of 36 years. Let that sink in for a bit – this is a generation’s worth of delay.

Working while being a woman has been so testing during this time that a recent 2020 McKinsey research reveals that a quarter of women are actively thinking of either downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether. The number goes up to 1 in 3 working mothers.

While back in 2017 both men and women planning to leave the workforce to focus on family was equally 2%, today women are 1.3 times more likely than men to consider an exit.

So what’s causing these alarming statistics? Has the fear instilled during a global pandemic caused women to want to spend more time with their loved ones? Have women decided to give up on the outrageous notion that they’re equal to men and can have their own careers? Did the virus affect women’s minds differently? 

No, it’s none of these things. It’s the simple boring fact that women take on more work and family responsibilities than men, which has been 1.5 to 2.5 times intensified during the pandemic.

If you’ve never heard of the mental load you’re either 1) a man or 2) a woman who never knew the name to attribute to the exhausting reality of her life managing a double shift: full time job in the workplace followed by hours of caring for her children and managing the household.

That’s not to say men don’t have any home-based responsibilities, but the disparity between the times men and women spend on childcare is appalling. On average, women with children under 18 are spending over 3¼ hours a day on childcare while men spend only two. The numbers go up to 5 hours a day for women if the child is of primary school age. And the men? They still spend 2 hours.

Women in senior roles cite burnout as their main reason for thinking of leaving. This is not surprising as women, who feel more pressure to work harder to prove their value to begin with are already in a less privileged position than men in similar roles. 

The pressure to be “always on” means that women in senior roles feel significantly more exhausted and burned out than their male peers and as a result are 1.5x more likely to think about downsizing their careers or leaving them all together.

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has been a huge setback to women in the workplace and made a bad situation immensely worse. If we want to retain women we must look at the past year as an opportunity to find out how we can make the workplace a more inclusive place.

One of the most important things we need to offer is flexibility. Now that we know that businesses can survive with their employees working from anywhere and not just the office, we must offer true flexibility to our employees. 

Flexibility needs to come in the form of allowing employees to plan their days around their home life and choose their own hours, and in offering the choice between working in an office, at home, or a healthy mix of both.

But flexibility alone is not enough. Pre-covid men “chose” to stay extra hours at the office while women “chose” to leave early to attend their double shift. This contributed to men being put up for promotion more than women – women simply weren’t around enough to be noticed compared to their male peers. 

If we plan a hybrid model, adopt a remote-first approach and change the way we’re measuring individual success and contribution, we can minimise the gender gap in senior roles.

We should also rethink the perks we offer our employees – how many of them are directly benefiting women and helping them progress.

Yes, a gym subscription, free lunches and after-work socials are fun for most, but a working mum would benefit more from subsidised childcare, household help and some work-time socialised events.

The best thing about these changes is that if they’re offered to all staff men can benefit from them too, which on its own will take a load off of their female partners and prevent both from feeling fatigued or burned out at work. It’s a win-win for literally everyone.

The pandemic helped broaden gender inequalities, but also gave us a unique opportunity to learn from the change it forced on our work culture. The patriarchy has pushed people around for far too long. Now we’re fit and healthy again, it’s time to push the patriarchy back.