The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated gender inequalities that permeate the workplace, leading to women leaving the workforce in droves. Through our Five for 5 initiative, we have identified five policies that the private sector can immediately implement to reverse these trends, advance equality in the workplace, and help deliver on the promise of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 for girls and women everywhere.

No single statistic could adequately convey the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economic security and aspirations of American women. But this one comes close: over 2.3 million women have been pushed out of the workforce since the pandemic began. Just 1.8 million men have left during the same period. 

Women slightly outnumbered men in the U.S. workforce a year ago. But since February of last year, jobs held by women have been nearly twice as susceptible to losses compared to those held by men – with unemployment rates even higher among Black and Latina women. Even with last month’s slight gains, women are still down more than 5 million jobs since this time last year. 

Why should this so-called ‘she-cession’ alarm us all? Because the resilience and growth of economies depend on women’s workforce participation. Because women’s earnings are essential for many families’ economic security. Because if women participated in the economy identically to men, global GDP would increase significantly. And ultimately, because there will be no post-COVID-19 recovery unless women’s economic prospects recover.

For months, U.S. job reports have painted a dire picture of the pandemic’s deep and disproportionate impact on women. 

Photo: Unsplash

Many blame the pandemic entirely, but in truth the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated the shaky economic ground on which women have always stood. From their over-representation in vulnerable and informal sectors, to the lack of high-quality care services, to closed schools and the persistent unpaid care burden – this pandemic has taken what was already a precarious economic situation and sent it spiraling out of control. 

Urgent government action is required. But the private sector also has a unique and essential role to play in keeping women on their payrolls and stopping this regression in its tracks. Here are five ways businesses can better support women in the workforce: 

1. Prioritize Equal Pay for Equal Work  

Equal pay for equal work remains stubbornly out of reach. Women in the U.S. only earn 81 cents for every dollar earned by men. The pay gap is even more egregious for Black breadwinner mothers who earn just 44 cents on the dollar. 

Evidence suggests that pay disparity leads to lower levels of employee performance and productivity, so paying employees fairly is just good business. Companies need to conduct regular pay audits and assess pay scales, benefits, and bonuses to ensure equal pay for equal work. 

2. Support Women in Leadership 

Women remain markedly under-represented in senior management. Only 40 Fortune 500 companies are run by women – sadly, an all-time high – and just a handful are women of color. But company profits and share performance can be twice as high when women are included at the top. 

Companies should start by investing in women’s advancement in the workplace with training, mentorship and professional development opportunities. Managers at all levels must be accountable for achieving gender parity, and businesses should remove gender bias in recruitment and retention practices.

3. Ensure a Safe Workplace

Harassment in the workplace remains a pervasive issue and significant barrier to women’s advancement. Yet 59 countries currently have no laws prohibiting sexual harassment or abuse at work. 

Companies must take immediate action to ensure workplaces are no longer unsafe environments for women. Zero-tolerance policies and mandatory reporting processes are essential, and companies should support time off and access to care for victims who need physical or mental health care.

Photo: Unsplash

4. Offer Paid Parental Leave

Paid parental leave is critical to women’s labor force participation and a gender-balanced distribution of household responsibilities. Parents comprise almost one-third of the U.S. workforce, meaning any economic recovery will rely on their participation. And studies have shown that paid leave encourages women to stay in the workforce. 

Companies should provide at least 14 weeks of paid parental leave for parents regardless of gender, including for adoptive or foster parents. Paid leave should be encouraged, non-transferable, and incentivized. 

5. End the Use of Negative Gender Stereotypes in Advertising 

Given their ubiquity, advertisements perpetuate some of the most harmful gender stereotypes. Just a fraction portray women as leaders, intelligent, or having a sense of humor. Consumers are fed up, and with good reason. A recent report found that gender-stereotypical imagery and words can lead to unequal gender outcomes. Companies should refuse to diminish women in advertising and integrate a gender lens throughout all phases of production.

These challenges are not isolated to the U.S. but are playing out in countries around the world – and they will be a top priority for world leaders gathering later this year at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris, where private sector commitments to gender equality will feature prominently. 

Private sector leaders the world over must seize this unique moment to reject ‘business as usual’ and advance equality in the workplace. Not only does our successful economic recovery depend on it, but our ability to ensure full equality for women everywhere, and in every part of life. 


Featured Photo: Unsplash