Covid-19 has stressed the world and the workplace, but for some groups like women workers, stressors may be at a breaking point. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted sectors dominated by women including retail, travel, hospitality, healthcare, and textiles, interrupting or even eliminating jobs and incomes.
Where jobs are less threatened, Covid-19’s disruption of school and work environments has meant women’s share of unpaid work like childcare and household duties have expanded and intensified. The result — strung out mothers and stressed out employees.
According to a 2020 report from McKinsey and the LeanIn.Org, one in four women are considering reducing job responsibilities whether by going part-time, switching to less-demanding roles, or taking a leave-of-absence.1
Whether losing a job or taking a break due to overwhelming stress, bumps and stalls in a career path can impede the development of capable women leaders at all levels of the organization. This creates a leadership gap now and in the future.
And the long-lasting effects don’t just hit companies. Stifling female potential now, reduces income and opportunities later, widening gaps over entire careers. The World Economic Forum reported a delay of 257 years (55 years longer than previously reported) before the economic gender gap will close.
When women drop out of the workforce everyone loses. Women lose opportunities. Families lose income. Companies lose talent and innovation. Economies lose revenues. Numerous internal and external studies point to not only the overwhelming benefits but also the overwhelming necessity of keeping women in the workforce.
When companies do it right, gender equality and diversity can lead to increased innovation, greater productivity, improved profitability, enhanced share price performance. Moreover, on a global scale, McKinsey’s landmark report on the power of parity calculated that advancing gender equality across the world could add as much as USD 12 trillion to global GDP by 2025.
According to Junwei Hafner-Cai, portfolio manager for the RobecoSAM Gender Equality Impact Equities strategy, “companies that manage gender equality and diversity well, have a competitive advantage. They have access to a greater pool of talent, are able to retain employees, and have stronger insights into their customers and market opportunities.”
The RobecoSAM Gender Equality Impact Equities strategy invests in companies that are leading in promoting gender equality and diversity in the workforce. Using ESG data and a proprietary framework, the strategy ranks companies on metrics that include board and workforce diversity, equal pay, talent management, engagement, health and well-being.
That last measure includes criteria like paternity-maternity leave, childcare support, and flexible work arrangements that can show how companies are helping their employees balance home and career. The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the strengths of flexible working arrangements as a tool to manage professional and home responsibilities, remain productive, and improve retention rates. It provides evidence that if given the chance, workers, including women can make flextime arrangements work successfully.
More still, some Covid workplace studies show that when given the option, many men will invest in reducing gender inequalities at home, helping share childcare, chores, and admin activities to reduce stress on working wives and partners.2
Still, having the tools available isn’t enough. Despite well-being policies and well-meaning rhetoric, many women are still being pushed beyond their limits. Women and employees must feel empowered to use the tools. To stave off a devastating talent drain, companies need to embed work-life balance into their cultures from the top down. Senior management must actively model behavior by using flextime tools themselves in order to signal its acceptance among subordinates. Moreover, work-life balance shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘perk’ or privilege. Everyone should take time to take care (of themselves).
Work-life balance shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘perk’ or privilege. Everyone should take time to take care (of themselves).
That’s a point Junwei Hafner-Cai stresses with respect to the gender strategy:
“We recognized early that issues of equality went beyond special treatment of women and other groups in the workplace. In fact, that’s a flawed approach that actually damages equality. Our gender scoring system looks for how companies are building a broad culture of equality and inclusion. We’ve always maintained the focus of equality for all employees; no one should be seen as a privileged group.”
Robeco’s Active Ownership team is also working diligently to advance equality in the workplace. The team leverages gender score analysis, investment team feedback and the expertise of an in-house SI research team to develop gender benchmarks that are used to engage with low-scoring laggards at the bottom.
When asked about the impact of Covid-19 on the team’s activities, engagement specialist Laura Bosch explained it had intensified discussions around female talent retention and flexible working benefits. Moreover, she says it has exacerbated inequalities in global supply chains. As a result, ongoing engagement projects assessing labor practices in textiles and apparels (areas dominated by women) will be expanded to include the impacts of the pandemic.
We want to ensure companies are tackling working conditions at the supplier level to ensure human rights are respected and protected
Bosch explains that “according to the Ethical Trade Initiative, approximately 190 million women work in global supply chains – in the factories, farms, and packing houses that supply the world’s clothing, goods and food. For millions of women workers excessive hours, difficult and unsafe working conditions, and poor wages are a daily reality.
We want to ensure companies are tackling working conditions at the supplier level to ensure human rights are respected and protected; this makes gender equality a much bigger human rights issue, critical to the achievement of decent work for all.”
1 McKinsey and Company. (September 2020). Page 6. “Women in the Workplace 2020.” www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace
2 Greenfield, R. (January 27, 2021). “Work from home has the power to advance equality or set it back.” Bloomberg Businessweek.
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