COVID-19 could throw progress on gender equality in the OSH profession into reverse. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that employers who support female progress will thrive.
A year before the COVID-19 pandemic left global markets reeling and forced employers to rethink workplace models, the International Labour Organization (ILO) delivered its A quantum leap for gender equality report.
Its solutions for achieving gender equality came were capped by a damning conclusion – work-related gender gaps have not seen any meaningful improvements for 20 years.
In its Global gender gap report 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) also identified barriers to advancing gender equality.
Despite improvements across the 153 countries the report benchmarks, the WEF warned that gender parity was unlikely to be achieved in the next century without decisive action.
The WEF defines the gender gap as ‘the difference between women and men as reflected in social, political, intellectual, cultural, or economic attainments or attitudes’.
Key indicators could be differences in salaries or the percentage of female senior leaders.
However, the report was released before the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.
In July, the McKinsey Global Institute published COVID-19 and gender equality: countering the regressive effect – the first major study to assess how COVID-19 has disrupted efforts to progress gender equality.
Although the overall picture is complicated, the researchers calculated that global female job loss rates due to COVID-19 are about 1.8 times higher than male job losses.
The analysis also shows that female jobs are 19% more at risk than male ones (see COVID-19 and gender equality below).
Women have more than the average share of jobs in three of the four most affected sectors: accomodation and food service, retail and wholesale, and other services, which include the arts, recreation and public administration.
Women have been disproportionately burdened by the pandemic and progress on gender parity could go into reverse.
The report notes that if no action is taken, global GDP could be $1tn lower in 2030 than it would have been if women’s unemployment tracked that of men in each sector. The financial gains if immediate action is taken are startling.
Anu Madgavkar, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute and one of the report’s authors, told IOSH magazine: ‘It’s important to take action now to remove barriers to female labour participation and productivity, or else we risk allowing gender-regressive effects of COVID-19 to prevail, leaving massive economic opportunity on the table.’
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also explored how COVID-19 has disrupted progress. It found women are more likely to work in sectors that rely on face-to-face interactions, which are the most susceptible to social distancing restrictions.
The fallout has been felt most starkly by women in low-income countries, where only about 12% of the population can work remotely.
Like the McKinsey report, the IMF analysis reveals women have disproportionately shouldered family care responsibilities, juggling home schooling and care for vulnerable elderly parents.
‘When you interview women globally, the number one challenge is combining work and family,’ notes Emanuela Pozzan, senior specialist on gender and non-discrimination at the ILO. ‘If we really want to close the gender gap, it is essential to eliminate any form of discrimination.’
Emanuela also warns that the pandemic has exacerbated violence and harassment, both domestic and public facing. The ILO’s convention on this (see Resources) identifies the sectors that are particularly prone.
‘It is important to have risk assessments in the workplace that take into consideration domestic violence,’ she says, ‘because the home has become the workplace’.
Jobs at risk
COVID-19 and gender equality
Female jobs are 19% more at risk than male ones because women are disproportionately represented in industries expected to decline the most in 2020.
They are represented more than their average share in three of the four most in-decline sectors in the global economy:
- 54% in accommodation and food services (one of the worst affected sectors)
- 43% in retail and wholesale trade
- 46% in other services such as the arts, recreation and public administration.
Women do on average 75% of the world’s total unpaid care work, including childcare, caring for the elderly, cooking and cleaning.
The bright side?
But arguably there has also been a positive spin to COVID-19. Hayley Wright from IOSH’s Future Leaders Steering Group feels the pandemic has helped to normalise flexible working.
‘One of the challenges for young females who get to a certain age and want to have a family – and care and responsibilities fall on them – is that it tends to be a stopper on their career,’ she says.
‘Perhaps there’s more of an option now to have a home life. The new flexible working practices may help women step up into the leadership role.’
Many global studies illustrate the economic benefits that gender parity offers. In the UK, professional services firm Deloitte published a 2016 report that suggested targeted help for early-stage women entrepreneurs could provide a £100bn boost to the UK economy over the next 10 years.
However, progress for women climbing the career ladder continues to be a challenge, as Kizzy Augustin, partner at law firm Russell-Cooke, pointed out in IOSH’s webinar on gender equality in July (see Resources). Incredibly, in 2020, only 5% of CEOs at FTSE 100 companies are female.
IOSH’s membership data reveals that 21% of OSH professionals are female but representation is better among the future leaders’ generation. There is still a marked difference in salaries, however. The Office for National Statistics (see Gender split) reveals women’s OSH salaries lag behind men’s.
Gender safety audits
The EBRD funds projects, typically large construction developments, in countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic. In some cases, legislation is a barrier that prevents women from participating fully in the labour force.
The EBRD has recently introduced gender safety audits on some projects. Designed to facilitate more women in construction, they cover areas such as accommodation, gender-based violence, safe travel to work, welfare and work processes.
‘These safety gender audits requirements are very new and only being adopted on a few projects to date, so we haven’t got any outputs yet but it’s really important that we’ve identified this as a potential work stream that supports gender equality and safety going forward,’ says Debbie Cousins, group head, environment and sustainability department.
‘If we get some of the basics right, it does open opportunities for more women to be involved.’
IOSH president-elect Louise Hosking is a long-standing advocate for inclusion in the OSH profession and says that employers increasingly understand the value of having a balanced workforce. She will become IOSH president in November 2021 and says female representation needs to reflect a third of the membership.
‘Once you get 30% women, it becomes self-fulfilling,’ she says. ‘Women need to see women in leadership roles to feel this is something that they can aspire to and achieve.’
Chloe Hughes, another Future Leaders Steering Group member, argues that mentors are critical to this process. Her PhD (see Growing demographic below) explores the sensitive issue of menopause in the workplace that she says deserves more attention. Chloe says mentors from both sexes offering a different perspective is beneficial.
‘You might view a situation in one way but a different gender might view it completely differently,’ she says.
‘The reassurance [I got from my male mentor] really built my confidence. He put me in situations that were way out of my comfort zone but he knew I could do it and because he had that belief in me, I started to believe in myself.’
Her colleague Hayley concurs on mentorships. She says it’s vital to promote women who do make it into leadership roles: ‘It then makes the career more appealing [for women]. It’s not really been a career that’s been promoted.’
‘If it becomes more visible, it becomes a career that women think they can go into. Sharing journeys and challenges and having different networking opportunities is important to keep the momentum going in a career for women.’
IOSH Council member Funmi Adegbola founded the Society of Women in Safety, Health and Environment – Africa (SOWSHE-A) this year to keep up the pace of change.
Although initially set up as ‘a focus group for OSH women based in Africa to help them have an impact in the region’, the long-term plan, she says, is to promote its aims globally (see Out of Africa box).
Louise is quick to add that promoting female OSH advancement is not about isolating men. In fact, she argues the debate is around the masculine and female traits that both genders share.
‘One of the positives that has come out of the crisis is that we are caring more about how people feel and that’s a feminine trait,’ she says.
‘People with feminine traits are much more likely to be professionally curious and empathetic and those are skills we need moving forward. It’s another reason why we need this balance.’
Chloe Hughes identifies one issue that she feels managers can better support female professionals with.
‘Menopausal women are the fastest growing demographic in the workplace and if we don’t offer them support, they are more likely to leave the workplace, to take part-time hours or early retirement,’ she says.
‘Potentially, you are losing a demographic of women that are extremely knowledgeable but because they feel less supported they will leave.’
Chloe’s PhD explores the experience of managers and how they can best support menopausal employees. She argues that managers should acknowledge the menopause, be open to having collaborative discussions and work with female professionals to identify solutions.
Senior HSE leader Anne Gardner-Aston, another participant in IOSH’s webinar, agrees. Interviewed for leadership roles, she feels industry is undergoing a cultural shift, focusing more on feminine traits like engagement.
‘The questions are more around how you bring people along with you. How do you become the leader that others want to follow?’ she says.
‘More and more companies are also spotting that wellbeing has a real bearing on safety. That’s probably why you are seeing more women at conferences – wellbeing is starting to be one of the foundation blocks that leads to successful safety management. That’s only going to continue.’
Although more concerted action is needed, Louise feels gender equality fits into a wider debate around intersectionality.
‘This is the whole equality, diversity and inclusion piece. It looks at everything,’ she says.
‘It is tied in with behaviours. Intersectionality is about how we work together to create diverse workforces where fairness and difference are embraced. The result is workplaces that are psychologically safe and compassionate. That’s when we deal with the stress and anxiety. We then create creative, agile environments where people take responsibility and workplace risk reduces in all areas.’